“Architecture is too insular.” How many times have I heard this? Too many times to count. I’ve heard it from architects and non-architects, alike. It is not necessarily insular in the strict sense. It is more the case that it appears insular because it is self-referencing and self-validating. OK, so on second thought maybe it is just insular no matter how you define it. But my definition has more to do with the inward gaze of the profession that makes it a world unto itself. Like all worlds it has a need for celebrities.
More after the break.
What is the need for these celebrities, the “starchitects”? Why on earth are there starchitects in the first place? Where did they come from? Were they created by a Fifth Avenue marketing campaign? Not exactly, but something close to this: the profession itself gave birth to this phenomenon. This is one way the profession dialogs with itself, validates itself, and celebrates itself. However, some of them, like Frank Gehry, abhor the label and resist the responsibility it entails.
In part, they hold up the veil of glamour, achievement, and high culture that helps distinguish the profession. They also inspire, not just architects, but the public as well. In this sense they are good for the profession. They make all of us look good by setting the bar high and increasing social and cultural status. However, they don’t necessarily elevate our economic status. Here is why.
Despite the inherent value in having starchitects there is also a downside that paradoxically translates into lower fees and wages across the profession. The most obvious reason for this is, well, you aren’t one of them so you don’t cost as much. Of course, the starchitects themselves can command higher fees and claim higher cultural and economic value for their designs. At the same time, the image, the archetype of the starchitect reinforces the perception of architecture as the work of singular geniuses who depend on cultural or political “patrons.”
One of the reasons this is insanity from a business point of view is because of how it infects members of the profession to style themselves after this archetype before developing the requisite experience. The experience of school is often the breeding ground for this mentality that is inclined toward stardom over substance. This is not to say that those who are capable of producing substance should not be recognized as models in the profession. They should. The problem is that there are actually very few who are actually capable and smart enough to develop work of true substance that makes a contribution to the world, not just the design world, but the broader world we engage in. Not just the small world of the school gallery space or some architecture biennale, but the world of social space.
We as a profession have to do a reality check in order to become a truly viable and profitable economic sector that can compete with other sectors. Our audience has to be less ourselves and more the general public—the client pool. Yes, you might say, but this is architecture. We are above the crass world of finance and money. We are artists! We have ideals and principles! Yes, but you would be better able to act on your ideals and principles if your long-term business strategy enabled you to increase your power. As Frank Gehry once said, “Like it or not, we are part of the service industry. Who am I not to listen to a client?”
To struggle for fame and recognition ahead of substantive achievements is to pursue the abstract. The real work entails struggling for architectural visions we believe in and the eventual materialization of such visions in a world that often resists them. Overcoming this resistance with the force of design and ideas translates as social and cultural power. But what about economic power? This remains elusive, even with the appearance of success.
Stardom serves a purpose by elevating the profession in the public’s eye but it can also hold it back when it becomes a form of institutionalized narcissism, architects celebrating one another and themselves with awards and symposia and thesis reviews and more awards. The cult of stardom undermines economic success by stressing this façade over foundation.
The issue with the cult of starchitects is the focus on the auteur, rather than on the teams the profession is actually based on. The fixation on the singular “genius” sends the wrong message to clients by misrepresenting the true amount of work and brain power that must go into architecture. On the surface, it appears to be less of a business and more of a, dare I say it, atelier—the singular genius at his desk. What about all the people, the experts behind that person? Without the team, architecture would not get beyond the fantastic sketch in a notebook.
In contrast, one reason legal fees are so high is because it is understood that there are teams of briefcase-toting experts at work to achieve a desired outcome for a client. Plus the stakes can be high in legal cases. But the stakes are high in architecture, as well.
The culture of celebrity and mere appearance also distracts from dealing with the real structural and cultural challenges that plague the profession. It’s like we are all so busy watching TV that we don’t notice the house is burning down around us. But not to worry. The ABI ticked up another tenth of a percent, right? Oh, and there is that new plug-in for Rhino. And did you see the lecture by so-and-so the other night?
The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. Based in Los Angeles, he is a blogger for Metropolis and frequent contributor to GOOD, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and Architect Magazine. He is also a contributing architecture critic for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates.