Illustration by Wes Duvall, clockwise, from center, photographs by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times; Herbert P. Oczeret/European Pressphoto Agency; Suzanne Dechillo/The New York Times; Stephanie Diani for The New York Times
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
IT’S hard to pinpoint when the “starchitect” became an object of ridicule. The term is a favorite of churlish commentators, who use it to mock architects whose increasingly flamboyant buildings, in their minds, are more about fashion and money than function.
Often the attacks are a rehash of the old clichés. Cost overruns and leaky roofs are held up as evidence of yet another egomaniacal artist with little concern for the needs of us, the little people. (As a rule, if a roof leaks in a Frank Gehry building it’s headline news; if the building was designed by a hack commercial architect, the leak is ignored, at least as news.) John Silber, the former president of Boston University, has gotten into the game with “Architecture of the Absurd,” a glib little book that eviscerates contemporary architects for the extravagance of their designs.
The more serious criticism comes from those inside the profession who see a move into the mainstream as a sellout. The pact between high architects and developers, to them, is a Faustian bargain in which the architect is nothing more than a marketing tool, there to provide a cultural veneer for the big, bad developers whose only interest is in wringing as much profit as possible from their projects.
There’s some truth to this, of course. Santiago Calatrava’s overblown design for a transportation hub at ground zero in Lower Manhattan, for example, is as much a monument to the architect’s ego as a statement of civic pride. And architects don’t always help their own cause. When Mr. Gehry designed a jewelry line for Tiffany’s last year, many of his admirers cringed. How could a man of the people, whose own Santa Monica house — a crude composition of chain link, plywood and galvanized metal that seemed to be a slap in the face of uptight suburban values — ally himself with a status symbol for Connecticut newlyweds?
But in general I find these attacks perplexing. For decades, the public complained about the bland, soul-sapping buildings churned out by anonymous corporate offices. Meanwhile, our greatest architectural talents labored in near obscurity, quietly refining their craft in university studios and competitions that rarely led to real commissions. If their work had any impact, it was in the realm of ideas, where the designs served as a cutting critique of a profession that seemed to have lost its way.
Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.
Most important, the profession has become more democratic. The age of the manifesto is dead; there is no dominant style. Instead, we live in a time of competing creative voices, the best of which can offer penetrating insights into a culture that is in constant flux.
You may not like Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library, for example, but only a nitwit would argue that the architect was oblivious to the building’s function. A series of mismatched slabs wrapped inside a taut, weblike skin, the form is a bold expression of the client’s conflicting needs to preserve old books and also to come to terms with emerging information technologies. What’s unusual about the building is that Mr. Koolhaas — like many contemporary architects — chose to express these tensions in his design rather than smooth them over.
To my mind, if these architects are also getting a cut of the pie, why begrudge them? The 17th-century Baroque sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini was a tireless self-promoter, a celebrity sought by popes and princes, and it didn’t seem to dilute the quality of his work. Why shouldn’t today’s greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?
The real issue here is not the architects’ egos but a significant shift in the kind of clients they serve. In the United States, the enlightened homeowners and high-minded cultural institutions that made up the bulk of these architects’ commissions a decade ago have now been joined by mainstream developers like Forest City Ratner or Hines — multibillion-dollar corporations who see an alliance with a high-profile architect as both a chance to raise their own profiles and to help push their projects through an often tricky public review process.
At the same time, the handful of architecturally ambitious public works commissions that once existed here — like the federal government’s celebrated Design Excellence program, which produced a string of beautiful courthouses in the late 1990s and early 2000s — has largely dried up. And even in Europe, which traditionally has invested more in the quality of public architecture, the grand cultural commissions of the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by designs for soaring corporate towers or offices for, say, BMW and the European Central Bank.
In this new world, no hands are clean; there are good guys and bad guys on all sides. There are endless cases of architects’ being reduced to the level of decorator: convenient cultural lubricants whose main function is to help the public digest increasingly cynical developments. (The bigger the project and the more money involved, it seems, the more the architect is treated like a lackey.)
But from the architect’s perspective, working with mainstream developers is also a chance to step out of the narrow confines of high culture and have a more direct impact on centers of everyday life that were once outside their reach, from shopping malls to entire business districts.
This is especially true as the size of the developments continues to grow. New York alone is planning to add at least 35 million square feet of commercial space over the next couple of decades, much of it concentrated at sites like ground zero and the West Side railyards. Cities are being built virtually from scratch in China and the Middle East.
Architects have no control over a development’s scale or density; nor do they control the underlying social and economic realities that shape it. But what serious architect wouldn’t want to take up the challenge? And why should such an immense responsibility be turned over to hacks? Why wouldn’t we welcome the input of our most imaginative talents? The point is to create an environment where they can produce their best work.
As it is, the results are not always what you would expect. Recently, Hines unveiled a stunning proposal for a residential skyscraper designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. When it is built, it will be the most exquisite tower to rise in Midtown Manhattan since the Chrysler Building. By comparison, Mr. Calatrava’s flashy transportation building — the rare commission that is being designed for a supposedly well-meaning government bureaucracy, not a greedy corporate developer — looks like a shameful waste of public funds. With a price of more than $2 billion, it will serve a handful of passengers on the PATH trains and a subway line. In early renderings of the design, the cavernous main hall doesn’t even have a cafe. (Pennsylvania Station, which could use a face-lift, serves nearly 10 times as many passengers.)
In the end, it is the public’s responsibility to do the hard work of parsing the difference between superficial creations designed to cover up a hidden, cynical agenda, and sincere efforts to create a more enlightened vision of a civilization that is evolving at a brutal pace.