Anti-Starchitecture Chic

What’s a budding celebrity architect to do when the winds of change begin shifting away from fame?

Consider for a moment the plight of the stars. You do some work, you work the press, you aspire and achieve, the world embraces you—you’ve arrived!—and then, as surely as a pendulum swings, the environment around you changes. First there’s just a hint, an inkling of a shift. No more, it seems, are your projects and pronouncements guaranteed to resonate. Attention wavers; you find fewer column inches devoted to your genius. There’s more dissent (those pesky blogs!)—there’s even evidence of a subtle mainstream impatience with the starchitect model itself.

That cycle takes place at the micro level in each star’s career, and the savvy ones learn to manage their exposure—or have the luck to unveil another timely photo-friendly project—to keep their juggernaut on track. But we may now be seeing a more universal fatigue with the entire enterprise. This too may be cyclical. Though certainly inspired by the earlier image-mongering of Frank Lloyd Wright (and various Beaux-Artists before him), the roots of the current star system go back to the middle of the last century—when Philip Johnson served as such an able and increasingly high-profile spokesman for the modern profession, and architects such as Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and even Louis Kahn began to capture the extra-architectural imagination in the popular press. But the current, somewhat more (don’t say it…don’t say it) craven episode of celebrity is of more recent manufacture: of the 510 instances of that ugly word starchitect logged in the Nexis database at deadline, the earliest appears only in 1987 (in a reference to the great Harry Weese), and 439 of the articles using the term were published just in the last five years.

Are we ready for something new? Starchitecture culture in its current form—characterized by the premature coronation of designers based on flashy forms and blowout press coverage, the infection of schools with the idea of fame as a career objective and, as I wrote last month, a certain enabling complicity by the leading lights of our critical establishment—may be only about 20 years old. And it has certainly only reached current levels of saturation in the last ten. I can attest to the thorough establishment of the culture at Columbia University during the deanship of Bernard Tschumi in the mid-1990s, and I think I first saw starchitect used in print, negatively, around that time in an article by Cynthia Davidson, ANY magazine editor and wife of Peter Eisenman. Which is kinda funny. And let’s not forget the role of the World Trade Center follies in boosting the notoriety of architecture in general and the stars in particular; a full 92 percent of Nexis hits on the term starchitect date from stories published after September 11, 2001.

Then there’s the qualitative evidence. We’re bored with the stars. More important, I’ve spoken to many students in recent years—even at such previously starstruck schools as Princeton, Col­um­bia, and Yale—who are rejecting stardom as an aspirational model and are looking for other, perhaps more grounded ways to build a practice. Some of them also report a widespread dissatisfaction among their peers with the type of ­teaching—typically image-heavy and form-centric—that ­starchitecture has imposed on so many schools. In a related development, younger firms are more often using generic titles (albeit often in the mode of OMA) rather than marketing themselves exclusively as name-brand stars on the hoof.

Backlash is in the air, and using the same refined organs that so ably guided their rise, the smart stars can feel it. Consider Frank Gehry: after achieving relatively late and relatively hard-earned fame during his long post-Bilbao ride, he may now be trying to get ahead of a turn in his fortunes. He managed, almost alone, to remain untarnished (so far) by his involvement at Ground Zero, but then he stepped in it at Atlantic Yards, accruing in the last few years more bad press than in all previous decades—including the fallout one might have expected from the amazing 2003 episode of the gunman in his building at Case West­ern Reserve University, whose capture was delayed by the circuity of his plan. And then there’s the simple, natural swing of the pendulum—both at the scale of his career and the macro level suggested by the unsustainable ubiquity of the star­chitecture idea.

Gehry, of course, is an expert at managing his fame. Perhaps that’s why he felt compelled recently to deliver to me a T-shirt tastefully printed with “Fuck Frank Gehry,” and insist by proxy (the New York–based creator of the shirts acting as courier) that I wear it at the 2007 Temko Critics Panel (“What to Make of Starchitecture, and Who to Blame for It”). Apparently the shirts are popular at the offices of Gehry Partners LLP, and Frank was feeling frisky. My fellow panelists were amused and assumed I was a sellout, so it did have an effect on the proceedings. But I declined to wear the gift—ethics, you know, and anyway I prefer to get paid to advertise—and I responded by sending back a shirt with my name and a similar blunt mes­sage. May he wear it in good health—in front of as many cameras as possible.

The wheels are by no means falling off this particular limo, even as the cannier architects, established stars, and those wishing to be, seem to be trying to navigate a change in cultural taste. But how? To market yourself by saying “I am not a star” (as Josh Prince-Ramus has done since his split with Rem) is only to buy into the same tired trope. To get work, architects must sell a thing—the idea of a building—that by definition does not exist at the time of the sale. So recourse to some sort of theater is appealing. And their customers, prepared as they are to spend millions, are not the most easily sold—and in many cases, particularly for corporate or institutional jobs, they want the splash that only a star (or, it has to be said, a really great building) can reliably bring. It’s a puzzle; the economic pressures to operate as a star are many, and the alternative strategies are few. The only truly credible course may be to reject the very idea of using yourself as a brand, to work and work well, and then to get what press you get in the course of yet more good work. Boring maybe, but until a less destructive model of high-profile practice emerges, it’s the right thing to do.

Not long before the curious T-shirt incident, I had a meeting with an established architect, not yet a star but certainly aspiring. He made every effort to differentiate himself from his flashier peers and to speak of the sort of rootedness that I imagine he imagined would appeal to his audience. Still he was gung ho about his planned monograph, perhaps being rushed into print ahead of demand, and he was eager for press. After some polite chat I asked him why, if he had the jobs and the momentum and the ideals he said he had—as well as the pride he claimed in his own outsider status—did he not just eschew all of the trappings of stardom and quietly go about his work with a pure heart and faith in his talents. In short, I asked him why he needed to sow press coverage instead of just earning it the old-fashioned way. That cut the conversation very short. And until the pendulum swings just a little more toward good sense, I expect to have a lot of short conversations.

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