Beyond the Starchitecture Debate

Beyond the Starchitecture Debate

Paul Tuller

Frank flips the bird. Zaha sues a critic. Rem excludes the names of all architects in the Venice Biennale. With all their accolades and success, the biggest names in architecture, it seems, have adopted a combative, defensive crouch.

This posture is confusing. All three architects continue to shape the profession and produce significant buildings, but have they sensed a shift in their reputations? What’s getting under their skin? Is the celebrity/architecture complex beginning to break down?

Gehry, Koolhaas, and Hadid built their practices around strong individual talents with big personalities and identifiable styles. The younger generation of architects has yet to surpass the fame of Frank, Zaha, or Rem, or produce buildings of their globally recognized status. Some emerging architects are trying to follow in their footsteps, but many are not. The model and the goals of many younger practices have evolved.

Perhaps fame isn’t the point. Perhaps trophy buildings for rich institutions or corrupt regimes are not as enticing for emerging talents.

In his sharply tinged remarks to a Spanish journalist, Gehry exclaimed that 98 percent of the world’s buildings are “pure shit.” He has a point. We continue to tolerate poorly functioning, wasteful, ugly buildings, which do little to serve society and often do a lot to harm it. And certainly great museums and concert halls can inspire the public and educate them about the possibilities of design—but so too can a good public school or a community center or a hospital or a college lab building. Elevating the architecture of everyday life is as important as creating aspirational cultural buildings.

The media’s reaction to Gehry’s raised finger also illustrates the limitations of the celebrity-driven practice. It emphasizes personalities and styles over program, performance, and user experience. It flattens architecture into an image and turns the architect into a stylist. This is part of what Gehry was reacting so strongly against.

With the modernism/postmodernism wars of the 1970s and 80s fading into history, many younger architects want their practices to solve problems and engage with the programmatic, social, and ecological challenges of the day—all while pushing the limits of technology and design.

Bjarke Ingels, arguably the biggest celebrity architect of his generation, talks fluently (and very rapidly) about program, about sustainability, about narratives of place. He is always careful to declare his daring forms are in service of other needs. Has he just updated the Gehry/Hadid/Koolhaas model with more contemporary packaging? My sense is that there is more substance to it than that, but we’ll have to see as his firm develops and completes more built work.

Gehry, Hadid, and Koolhaas shouldn’t feel defensive. There will always be a global elite to support their work and trade on their brands. Other architects—and the media that covers them—should go about the business of fixing the remaining 98 percent of what gets built. We would all be better for it.