Sunday, December 2, 2012

Starchitects don't know best

It isn’t uncommon among the architectural and general media to solicit opinions from starchitects regarding their opinions about the globalization of architecture, the homogenization of design across borders, or what they have to say to critics of these practices. The mistake, of course, is that while starchitects may still do design work, they long ago ceased being solely architects. Today, the vast majority of their working lives are spent as businessmen, taking care of the ins and outs of being business owners, appeasing business partners, and their own professional/financial goals. Anyone who has run a business knows what challenges these can be, but make no mistake, they are counterintuitive to the singular title “architect”, which is the practice of building spaces for people and enhancing the built environment. I don’t know if global architects like Gehry, Koolhaas, Foster, Rogers et al. ever consider on a personal level whether or not they should be designing buildings in not only their home countries but also in the Middle East, China, and US, because the fact remains that it is their professional prerogative to create successful businesses and expand their operations. Which of course means designing as many buildings per year, in as many countries as possible, context be damned.

As a species we should not be proud of this. Source
So why do we care what starchitects have to say about globalization and the homogeneity of architecture? You wouldn't expect Bill Gates to say anything contrary to the monetary success of Microsoft, so why would Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, or Bjarke Ingels ever speak ill of borderless architecture? Of course they never do, because that could derail their business. Instead they’re steadfast and vocal proponents of their own brand of ideology, which for all we know could be an entirely fabricated marketing facade. Koolhaas in particular masquerades as an intellectual bar none, but I would argue his books, lectures, and philosophies are nothing more than the most sophisticated marketing campaign in architecture. And it's very effective, despite the unparalleled lack of humanity in his work. Like his public persona, his built work is cold, distant, and dismissive. One might venture that the job description of a starchitect is to reflect and equal the ego and megalomania of their clients, to disastrous effects.

Homogeneity might be acceptable in the fast-changing consumer electronics industry, or arguably even in music, but in architecture, the built environment which surrounds us every waking minute of our lives, and which is such an important aspect of our identifiable culture, well, it's simply not acceptable. Not unless we want to entirely lose our culture, identity, and traditions, or if we want the entire world to look exactly the same. I certainly don't. The most disappointing has to be when starchitects take on urban design duties. The results are unsurprisingly just as inhuman, if not more so, than their buildings. If you’re still saying to yourself fine, good for them, they have every right to promote their business just as any other corporation... very well, but at the least let’s stop seeing them as some kind of oracles of wisdom, better qualified to speak on architecture than anyone else. Large developers may build the majority of junk architecture, but at least they don’t pretend to be something they're not. 

I'm worried how apathetic many people have become about this. I don't just mean architects, who are among the greatest perpetrators of this global tragedy, but the general population has likewise been led to believe that place specific architecture is pastiche, old-fashioned, or not part of the zeitgeist. There's that German word again, the bane of beauty. It means the spirit of the age, but why glass, steel, and concrete represent the spirit of our age is a mystery to me. People may not be religious nowadays, but they sure do follow some of these guidelines as fervently as any religion. If anything, to me those industrially produced materials are the antithesis of the zeitgeist I live in, in which climate change is a serious concern and polluting industries should be shunned, not embraced. And for the sake of my mental well being, I want to live in an environment which promotes joy, beauty, and respect of nature. To continue to manufacture industrial materials in large quantities, conscious of the environmental consequences, and to promote them as part of the zeitgeist, that has to be some kind of perversion.

So I propose we stop promoting the BIG’s of the world (referring to both Bjarke Ingels Group and Koolhaas’ “Bigness” theories), and return architectural discourse to something of a grassroots level. We need to stop asking architect/businessmen what they foresee for the built environment, and instead start empathizing with our fellow citizens, and ask them how they would like to see their towns and cities develop. From studies we already know it veers more toward traditional walkable neighborhoods, not a megalopolis. And why not, when traditional city designs are the result of thousands of years of evolution and adapted to human needs. We want beautiful, walkable, place-specific neighborhoods, but we won't get that if we continue to hire a select group of architects to design all over the world. When mayors, planning officials, and developers turn to starchitects to develop buildings and master plans for their cities, it’s nothing more than totalitarianism which ignores the dreams of the people. Left to many architects, we’d still be in the throes of urban renewal and building towers in the park à la Le Corbusier. 

The dialogue needs to stop focusing on individual buildings and focus on the streetscape, the simple layout of streets and sidewalks, storefronts, public parks, and public transit. Only then should individual buildings come into the equation and be judged by how well they integrate and enhance the whole. A massively overscaled disjointed building like the CCTV tower? No thank you. A museum or big box store surrounded by acres of parking? I'll pass. And for the sake of all mankind, a moratorium on razing any building built pre-WWII. We need to preserve examples built at a time when human scale still mattered, when beauty mattered, and before cars dictated our cities. As for those starchitects? Well, I think your neighbor can probably identify beauty more effectively than they can.