Architizer Killed the Architecture Star?

Architecture has undergone something of a cleansing in recent years. With a few notable exceptions.

The past few years have been good for architecture—not financially, of course (it’s been brutal for most firms), but culturally. In contrast to the 1990s, and certainly into the noisy aughts, coverage of buildings and the people who design them is no longer focused so tightly on a select cohort, an elite. We see far less reflexive fealty to “starchitects” now. Even that insipid term seems dated, pejorative.

What changed? As in every arena, new media have encouraged access to a greater breadth—if not always depth—of information, allowing subcultures (our new long-tail polyculture) to thrive. The mandarinate that once controlled taste-making in the field, that was once so easily gulled, is quieter now, its voices lost in the chatter of free-thinking thousands. Architizer killed the architecture star?

The death of Herbert Muschamp in 2007 may have contributed to the palpable shift in tone. He had used his bully pulpit as the architecture critic of the New York Times for so long, so effectively, to promote a certain subset of designers—those, he would write, who could provide relief to his particular architectural “desire.” He found satiety in only the starriest stars, and he promoted them tirelessly. No one has replaced him in that mission; in the current media ecosystem, perhaps no one can.

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The ruckus surrounding the reconstruction of the World Trade Center also played a part in reducing the relative impact of stars on the profession. We saw there, again and again, the hollowness of their attempts to provide that which they (and their champions) had always claimed they could: designs that could stir desire, sure, but also provide meaning. As a group they failed to rise to the occasion. Remember the Dream Team, the collaboration of Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier, and Steven Holl? Or United Architects, the young starlets led by Greg Lynn? Exactly. Architects of the form-first, hire-me-because-I’m-a-genius type were routinely gobbled up and spat out of the redevelopment process, unable to cope with the politics, the technical complexity, the everyday mercantilism of it. Daniel Libeskind entered Ground Zero as a respected theorist, was elevated to near Wrightian levels of fame, then left the project diminished, diminishing, too, the type of practice he represented for a time so well.

Libeskind since has been busy designing condos, museums, shopping malls. Frank Gehry, similarly, has leveraged his long post-Bilbao superfame into a quiet cashing-in. Even Zaha Hadid is less fearsomely present. For the first time in decades there is space for other kinds of architects—favoring other modes of practice—to breathe. Some firms have stepped into that void, forefronting new techniques and ideas over form: ARO; Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis; even LOT-EK, holding fast to its ongoing project to glamorously repurpose industrial ready-mades, has never played the diva game. There is also that great grinding underworld of younger architects, kids, following the lead of these now-established elders, who are working close to the ground, close to materiality, process, in real economies untainted by self-serving myth, where the needs of clients perhaps at times even supersede the need to scratch a formal itch. That generation, Occupy notwithstanding, has been pilloried time and again for its post-political, post-ideological habits of thought. But it is also post-slacker. And architecture is a field in which generous, open-minded industry can pay back big in good work; it may be the only thing one needs.

In this climate, this hopeful new world, it is all the more shocking when we happen across a lingering dinosaur. Bjarke Ingels, the Danish star-in-training, seems poised to follow a professional path where big-time formalism begets big-time international press (thus inspiring more formalism). Thom Mayne is still serving up the same Morphosis brew and the press is still sucking it down. Like the old-fashioned star he is, Mayne depends on his myth, his words, seductive but empty images, operating as if he should get jobs by force of genius alone. His selection to design the first building for Cornell University’s high-tech grad school, planned for New York City’s Roosevelt Island, was a travesty, a backwards look for a forward-looking project. He’s the guy you pick for flashy shapes, and the press that still loves them, not, as that project demands, the making of a space for innovation, an innovative place.

But even Mayne cannot match Diller Scofidio + Renfro in relying on the old ways. Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, remember, were Muschamp’s favorite favorites, in part because they operated, as he did, with one foot in the world of art. That is a place architects often retreat to when their ideas are insufficiently robust to survive on builderly merit alone. Though they were given a retrospective at the Whitney in 2003 (SCANNING: the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio), they weren’t fooling everyone. Consider Jerry Saltz’s classic review of the show in the Village Voice: “Diller and Scofidio aren’t especially bad architects in a jazzy, pseudo-intellectual, quasi-Rem Koolhaas kind of way,” he wrote. They “spice things up and toss in brainy bits of theory. Architecture and design critics eat it up, as do wealthy clients. Things could be worse.” What couldn’t be worse, he concluded, was “their imitation art.”

It was an epic calling-out; it might have led to a decisive shaming, exile from their haven. But, we’ve often seen, it is not the quality of an architect’s dabbling in art but the fact of it, the gloss it gives to boring old architecture that wows critics and clients of buildings. In the decade since the firm has thrived. Theirs is a well-designed machine—Liz Diller talks theory, works long-standing connections; Ric Scofidio provides gravitas, a link to Hejdukian depth; Charles Renfro draws and burns up the night—but it is fragile. The firm can only sustain its reputation by the grace of starstruck observers.

The firm’s first major building, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), was disappointing to say the least: sloppy, pretentious, derivative. The critics loved it. And they’ve loved it all since—Lincoln Center, The High Line. They may even love the new tower for the Columbia University Medical Center when it is completed a few years from now. They shouldn’t. Renderings for the project released last summer show the firm rehashing a stale, stolen formal device, referred to as a “worldsheet” by the architect Neil Denari, who popularized it in the late 1990s. The worldsheet was already old when I wrote about it in these pages in 2000, older still when I traced the history of the form’s omnipresence here in a review of the ICA in 2007. In its stillborn 2002 design for the Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology, Diller Scofidio carted out that blob-era standby—floors turning up into interior walls, into ceilings, into exterior walls and the next level’s floors as continuous ribbons. The move was an empty decorative effect there, as it was at the ICA, as it will be tomorrow. Theft aside, the worldsheet must always be a structural lie, as Koolhaas discovered in 1997 when he had to use stucco and steel to fake-up the long turn between the concrete floor and roof at his Educatorium in Utrecht. The worldsheet signifies nothing but the fear of thinking like a real architect. It is a flashy gesture, and easy: the notional cupping of space. That’s why students have always loved it. Over and over again.

The High Line also revealed the firm’s essential shadiness. Not only because the architects wrote their collaborator, the thinky landscape architect James Corner, right out of the script after it opened, but in the way their collective star power insulated them from criticism. I’ve never seen a bad review; was it reviewed as architecture at all? Certainly no one spanked the firm for its complicity in creating that aggressively not-quite-public space. Or commented on the obvious gimmickry of the design itself. The reintroduction of decorative railroad tracks (sometimes, bending to the design at the wrong gauge) was as much a sign of confusion as Peter Eisenman’s counterfeit armory facade at the Wexner Center. An intellectual hiccup. A gaffe. Ditto the look-at-me fussiness of the whole. For the scrappy developers of the project who sold the idea, the glory of the High Line was always the High Line itself. Still, they needed glam to raise funds. And they got it. But if there ever was a place where architects should have argued for doing less, gotten the hell out of the way and let a site be itself, this was it. Instead they littered the ground with fancy tripping hazards. Then took a long bow.

Other architects have found a way to work with—and through—fame in such a way that good, original architecture can come out the other end. Koolhaas has done it, quietly receding in recent years from his role as the profession’s baddest boy. The work of OMA has improved as a result. Take a look for yourself; you can find it here and there online, if no longer always in your face in the morning paper, captioned with praise. It may be possible some day for Diller Scofidio + Renfro to dim by choice, eschew the limelight, fade into a similar late-career effectiveness. Maybe when what’s left of the old-fashioned, enabling criticism disappears? Maybe—I doubt the firm could survive the transition. So much of what they sell depends on words and images, sex appeal, mendacity left unchecked. The last stars standing would be giving up a lot if they ever had to give up being stars. Too much: we might see that they were never anything more.

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