The Rise of Starchitecture: Who to Blame (or Credit)

Event: 2007 Temko Critics Panel: A Critical Situation: What to Make of Starchitecture, And Who To Blame For It
Location: Baruch College, 03.28.07
Speakers: Karrie Jacobs and Philip Nobel — Contributing Editors, Metropolis; Jeremy Melvin — Architectural Review, consultant to Royal Academy of Arts Architecture Program, London; Rowan Moore — Director, The Architecture Foundation, and critic for Evening Standard, London; Moderator: Joseph Grima — Director, Storefront For Art and Architecture
Sponsors: Forum for Urban Design and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; hosted by the Newman Institute for Real Estate Studies, Baruch College

photo by Kristen Richards

Temko Critics Panel (l-r): Jeremy Melvin, Philip Nobel, Rowan Moore, Joseph Grima, and Karrie Jacobs.

Kristen Richards

“I’ll jump into the deep end: starchitecture isn’t such a bad thing,” moderator Joseph Grima posited to the panel of design journalists and critics. “It’s good for your profession — it gives you something to write about.” Using Frank Gehry, FAIA, as an example of a global brand, he asked, “Are journalists to be blamed or credited?”

Jeremy Melvin, author of Isms: Understanding Architectural Styles (Universe 2006), commented that the conversation has been the same for the last 100 years, and will be the same for the next 100. The problem, as he sees it, is that in the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been more money to spend on architecture, causing “brand inflation.” He cited the Gazprom Tower competition as a “significant” example: “Invite all the same architects, and the winner is RMJM, a firm not that well known outside of the U.K. The design was not very good, but not worse than the others.” But it was a competition where “the quality of design dissolved.”

Philip Nobel asked if there is a connection between celebrity and quality. Melvin responded, wryly, that “celebrity can be achieved without doing anything,” yet there’s also the “irony” of those who reach “hyper-celebrity” because they have huge organizations behind them (he finds Norman Foster looking to sell his firm for £500 million “absurd”). Nobel pointed out that Zaha Hadid came to celebrity through her art and media buzz — which “is problematic — does that mean it’s good or just photogenic?”

Grima wondered if there’s complicity between architects and the press. Rowan Moore sees a “major shift in the scale of the phenomenon of starchitecture” where “clients and architects are controlling access to those they know will be positive; the balance of power has changed.” He said it boils down to “persuasion and charm, similar to the games fashion houses play.” Karrie Jacobs agreed, saying developers are buying into starchitecture in a big way, with “Broadway-style lists of credits in real estate ads. As architecture is recognized by popular culture, it becomes less the domain of a small group of experts and opinion makers.” She suggested someone should draw up a chart of how much a starchitect’s name adds to the square-foot value of a project.

To Grima’s question, “Has any building been killed by the press?” With a devilish grin, Melvin answered, “I’ve done quite a bit of slaughtering. Critics should be in the business of criticizing. Otherwise, what’s the point?” He later said that if the art world has experts who authenticate artworks, “why not have critics to authenticate good design?”

Grima then asked the panel if starchitecture has replaced what used to be “movements” or “isms.” Moore said, “I’d rather have starchitecture than isms or ideologies as style. Maybe it is progress. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic.” Nobel countered that in architectural education, “what might be good about isms is you’d have something to teach — not graphic chicanery. There are victims here — us — when these juniors start building.”

Audience Q&A: Is starchitecture a good thing? Moore: “I don’t think it’s fantastic; it’s open to abuse, but it doesn’t kill people.” Melvin: “You’re being too kind. It can hurt people.” Jacobs: “Ostentatious, over-the-top buildings used to show off nationalism. It beats the hell out of an arms race.”

How do you teach a client to think differently about architecture, to make better choices? Moore: “Call out bad buildings and bad shortlists.”

Would a global economic downturn affect starchitects? Nobel: “They’re trying to build practices that are recession-proof. You won’t kill starchitecture.”