At 85, Frank Gehry is still a very busy man. His distinctive style shines through more than 30 monumental works, although his best known is arguably the ground-breaking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. With Gehry’s Guggenheim, Bilbao was transformed from a sleepy port city into a tourist draw for aficionados of art and architecture alike. But what really happens to a city when a starchitect descends in its midst? Relying on the “Bilbao Effect” for urban development and cultural advancement might sound like a sure-fire plan, but it can backfire if city planners fail to recognize certain globalizing systems at work.
Gehry’s signature style of sweeping, wave-like geometric forms has become the quintessence of starchitecture. While architects like Gehry and Rem Koolhaas despise the term, it continues to bubble up in our celebrity-obsessed culture. How does this term complicate how we talk about architecture and how we understand our cities?
On one hand, starchitecture paints the picture of creativity governed by singular genius. No one dares dispute the master as his plans unfold, sometimes into an ungainly creation that becomes, at its most benign, a sort of fetish object, or at worst, an urban catastrophe. With no regard for context, the starchitect imposes his building on the city as a mechanism of “cultural imperialism,” as Beverly Willis describes in her article “Here's to the Demise of the Star Architects.” Radical individual style is celebrated, regardless of whether or not the building works within the framework of the city. Other cities then line up to get some starchitecture glow of their own, ignoring lesser-known architects in favor of those with more notoriety and glamor.
Since its inception, the term starchitecture has been tainted with connotations of dilettantism and ego. The term originated in the 1940s as an informal, derogatory word to designate movie stars who also designed houses. But architects with egos had been media darlings long before Frank Lloyd Wright famously asserted that the architect is a prophet. As early as 1906, the tabloids were busy chronicling the lurid murder of architect Stanford White caught in a love triangle with the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit and millionaire Harry Thaw. Fast forward to the 1990s, when a boom in high-profile building collided with the media’s first real interest in celebrity designers such as Gehry and Zaha Hadid, the flamboyant Iraqi architect who was the first female to win the Pritzker Prize.
While starchitecture tends to emphasize solitary genius, it does so at the expense of an art form driven by a collective, networked effort of real-estate developers, construction crews, city officials, engineers, and design team members. Where starchitecture prevails, there is an ever-widening gap between success and failure as commissions are confined to a select few rather than distributed among the perhaps more deserving. When opportunities are not shared or distributed among as wide a pool as possible, the chance for mediocrity—or at least compromise—increases. In the case of public structures, the stakes are considerably higher. Whether a building succeeds or fails within a given environment, the presence of a starchitect is, or should be, irrelevant. Critical reception of a building designed by a starchitect can draw welcome attention to a city or lead to the building—and by extension, the city—becoming a laughingstock. The chances for the latter are arguably less if the architect is locally based and creates an interpretation based on shared, experiential input acquired through a deep understanding of context and purpose.
In “The Franchising of Architecture,” Witold Rybczynski argues that cities and developers should be more sensitive to place, harnessing local energy and talent rather than bringing in outsiders expected to absorb the dynamics of an unfamiliar location and create the perfect addition in a matter of months. “[A] true sense of place is an abstract and rather elusive concept,” Rybczynski writes. “Cities have their own patterns of building, influenced by the pace of life, the quality of light, historic traditions or simply the materials available. Buildings that acknowledge these patterns reinforce the sense of a particular place — they belong…. Building in a place where you don’t live, it’s easy to experiment, even to be outlandish.” Nurturing “locatects,” by contrast, results in intellectual and instinctual payoffs not only for the designer and the city planners but also for a city's aesthetics.
But is locatecture possible in a globalized world? Today, architecture is no longer defined by the origin of its practice but rather how that practice is executed—this makes the idea of pure localism as Rybczynski envisions it impracticable if not impossible. As Vishaan Chakrabarti describes in his article “Global Architects are Important to Better Designs,” locals have repeatedly embraced work done by outside firms and heralded these buildings with a new sense of civic pride.
So locatecture does matter, but not perhaps quite as Rybczynski describes it. Architectural works must acknowledge and even defer to the existing environment. Starchitects who receive commissions should recognize their obligation to integrate their designs into local communities. If these buildings become tourist attractions, so much the better, but this should not be the first aim of the city planners who offer the commissions.
What’s more, architectural design must be humanistic and consider the systemic precedents in place. Starchitecture that does not incorporate a macro perspective of historical, economic, technological, social, political, environmental, and geographic forces has failed to reckon with the fundamental character of a city. In short, starchitecture transcends its celebrity status only when it is accompanied by empathy and rationality.
Allison Lank is a Media Studies student at the University of Virginia and an intern at The Hedgehog Review.