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Notes on the end of "starchitecture"

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In the latest issue of Newsweek, Cathleen McGuigan declares that "starchitecture", the era of ambitious architectural projects meant to call attention to themselves with wild shapes and futuristic materials, is all but dead.

The era that began in 1997 with architect Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—one of ambitious, often wildly sculptural buildings that screamed "look at me" but were also held up as kick starters of urban revitalization—came to an end with the economic collapse of 2008, McGuigan argues.

Or, as Rosalie Genevro, director of the Architectural League in New York, says in the Newsweek article, "The spectacle building is kind of a dinosaur."

Part of me was a little skeptical reading this. I thought of how after the September 11, 2001 attacks there was actually an open question of whether the era of tall buildings was over. Which of course seems ridiculous now. I wonder if starchitecture is just another name for the ambitious building designs that are part of any era or society’s economic boom time.

Here in Portland, we never had much of any starchitecture. Commissions for world-renowned architects are all but non-existent here, and when they do come, the commissions usually haven’t led to completed buildings. The likes of Gehry, Richard Meier and Cesar Pelli can attest to that. Portland does have a kind of second-tier starchitect in Brad Cloepfil, but even his firm, Allied Works, has designed exactly one new non-house building in Portland in the last decade: the modest but exquisitely elegant 2281 Glisan buiding.

Some of the landmark architectural works that came in the era of starchitects were wonderful, McGuigan correctly argues. Buildings like Guggenheim Bilbao aren't just empty bombast; legendary architect Philip Johnson was famously brought to tears visiting Gehry's museum for the first time, on a July 2001 "Charlie Rose" episode; he compared the building to the great Chartres Cathedral in France. Personally, I like Gehry's Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. There were also public buildings like Rem Koolhaas's Seattle Central Library and Herzog & DeMeuron's National Stadium (the "Bird's Nest") in Beijing.

Starchitecture was seemingly only enhanced by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that came a few months after the Rose-Gehry episode; all that patriotism needed big bold expression.

"Yet innovation as mere style is nothing to prize," McGuigan writes. "No one is going to miss the second-rate excesses of the era. Pointlessly pointy architecture is so over. And we can hope that what comes next will be thoughtful design that responsibly reflects the complexities of contemporary life."

Much of the signature architecture of the 2000s was akin to the massive tail-finned automobiles turned out by Detroit in the 1950s. Both came from periods of expansive, sustained economic prosperity and technological advancement. Cars of the "Leave It to Beaver" era celebrated newfound freedom of America's new interstate highway system and advancements in auto technology that made them faster and sleeker than ever before. Buildings in the time of the "Bilbao effect" came alive with the notion first birthed by postmodernism: that architecture can really have any shape on the outside, making it irresistible as multimillion-dollar sculpture. And, both the era of the tail-finned car and the swoopy titanium Gehry buildings of the '90s and '00s gave way to decades seemingly more about social transformation: civil rights in the '60s, sustainability in the '10s, making the old behemoths seem just that.

The signature starchitect building of the 2000s was the art museum. Besides Bilbao, there were projects like Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum with its soaring arches; Herzog & DeMeuron's Tate Modern in London, re-imagining the gargantuan Bankside power station; Richard Meier's Getty Museum in greater Los Angeles, a mountaintop temple to art; Libeskind's Denver Art Museum with the architect's trademark crystalline forms; as well as Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Brad Cloepfil's Museum of Art & Design in New York and countless more.

Yet in Portland we did something very different, and something very much in the same spirit of the more modest art museum projects happening in other cities: we renovated the building next door with typical Portland pragmatism and understatedness.

Ultimately these most famous of world architects turned their attention to housing as well, in the form of high-profile hotel and condominium projects. The high-rise condo, after all, was the principal addition to big-city skylines across America during the 2000s, because the decade's economic boom was driven largely by a dangerously deregulated housing and mortgage market.

This is a trend Portland was much more a part of. If you look at the past decade in terms of how the skyline was transformed, it was almost solely about condos, rising in South Waterfront and the Pearl District.

McGuigan's Newsweek piece argues correctly that in the place of empty-calorie architectural candy is coming a more nutritious brand of design that has over the last decade established itself as the truer transformation in architecture: sustainability. The cost of energy has continues to escalate, not just in monetary terms but human and ecological ones: fighting wars in the unstable Middle East countries, or risking the kind of full-scale disaster now happening with the Gulf of Mexico oil-rig disaster.

But more than that, sustainability is a kind of generational correction. When air conditioning was invented in the early 20th century, two or three generations of building designers stopped paying attention to one of the most fundamental aspects of architecture, one dating back to the beginning of humans building: mindfulness of topography, climate and other natural conditions affecting our homes, schools and offices. You could visit a thousand-year-old Buddhist temple in Japan, a rustic villa in Italy or a mosque in Turkey, and they'd all show an effort to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer by a combination of building orientation, insulation and natural light.

Today, McGuigan says, architecture is becoming more of a collaborative affair than the old stereotypical notion of a primadonna architect who dictates to a builder, engineer and other subcontractors. In order to deliver green buildings that use less energy, water and other resources, there must be an integrated design process involving all building team members. Achieving an ultra green building comes not through one smoking-gun material or product like a solar panel, but instead is the summation of lots of little efficiencies.

But again, it’s funny how Portland was embracing sustainability even as much of the rest of the world was still seeking out swoopy Gehry titanium curves or angular Libeskind crystal forms.

One curious aspect of sustainability is that, unlike most architectural movements of past centuries, it's not an expression of a particular style. But in tough economic times such as the past two years, that results-oriented pragmatism is a kind of vitamin shot for a profession sometimes too concerned with empty bombast in the past. "There's a certain healthiness when the profession has to cut back, re-grow, and re-imagine what it is we're all supposed to do," says Rob Rogers, a partner at Rogers Marvel in New York, in the Newsweek story, "which is creative problem solving."

"A viable product comes from place making," Mark Eden  of Gerding Edlen Development told me in a Metropolis Magazine interview in 2008. "How do you create great places that people want to come to live, work, and play in? Then you also have to look ahead. I personally believe we've got a broken national energy policy. I think it's a national security issue. It's about speed and scale, and we don't have a lot of time."

photos by Brian Libby

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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