Letter to the Editor: The Expression “Starchitect” Has Passed Its Shelf Life

  • 11 Jul 2013
  • by
  • Articles Editor's Choice

Earlier this week we received an impassioned request from one of our US readers. Architect Stephan Jaklitsch requested that we refrain from referring to architects as “star architects” or “starchitects.” Not only did we agree to retire this problematic and shallow descriptor of some instrumental members of our profession, but we wanted to reprint his letter here. 

Dear David,

I sincerely believe that the use of “star architects” or worse, “starchitects”—which is not a word—undermines serious discourse regarding architecture and urbanism. An argument could be made that any popular expressions or jargon undermine the seriousness of the message; it is a sloppy, derogatory term that is both insulting to the architects described and to the profession in general. It doesn’t serve any real purpose except to denigrate a few individuals and to signal the “hip” or “in-the-know” sense that the journalist has of himself. Now, however, it communicates that the journalist is out-of-date. If nothing else, the expression starchitect has passed its shelf life.

These architects are serious, skilled individuals who are at the pinnacle of their professional careers; why are these writers using expressions that denigrate them? The problem is not with the architects who have achieved a level of fame but the cult of celebrity that permeates our culture. It shuts out other very worthy architects and focuses on a select few that the media is complicit in favoring. Just as CNN used to ban the word “foreign” under Ted Turner, I urge you to take a positive step and restrict or ban these terms by writers on your team. By using starchitect as a quick, easy term, it shuts out more serious discussion of the underlying issues. It comes across as something a tabloid would use and I am dismayed that so many serious journals of architecture have allowed a word that might be used at a cocktail party to slip into their writing. It also comes across as self-hating by members of the profession who use it.

Rather than be envious, why don’t we create a way of opening up the conversation to be more inclusive of other architects who are doing worthy things around the world? Rather than shut down a few, focus on the many. We have a select few architects who have won Pritzker Prizes and do excellent work, but there are so many others who are just as competent and deserve recognition. When journals endorse the cult of celebrity, it does a disservice to all of us.

Stephan Jaklitsch, AIA
Principal Jaklitsch / Gardner Architects PC

Cite: AD Editorial Team. "Letter to the Editor: The Expression “Starchitect” Has Passed Its Shelf Life" 11 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=401372>

14 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +18

    The general feelings presented on the matter will be well-received by most in the industry, but arguing semantics will get us nowhere. Sure, the term itself may tap into an existing celebrity culture (that will ALWAYS exist regardless of what word people use to describe it), but any honest designer knows that these so-called ‘starchitects’ are greatly respected in their own right. The fact that some in the profession consider this a derogatory term is a superfluous argument, since that has nothing to do with their actual success; they reach the pinnacle by being truly great architects/designers. By ‘banning’ a single word, we do nothing to combat the attitude that you seem to detest. Do we just continue banning the following words that will inevitably pop up to describe the same thing?

    Regarding the title of the article, the term itself will ‘pass its shelf life’ when it stops being used.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    nice to see editorials get listened too…but…i’m not convinced with stephan’s argument. architect’s are already a ‘forgotten’, damaged and esoteric profession in US society, how is one word going to harm the profession any more than say, the AIA, who seclude the community and articulate the architectural culture into isolationists.

    i do agree that there is much more realized architecture work being accomplished across the world that is not on your favorite architecture blog. oh, and of course, i hate the ‘word’ that is the root of this discussion.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -1

      I definitely agree: architectural mastery is mastery regardless of public acclaim. Star or no star… it is actually meaningless for them and should be for us.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +11

    Reminds me of Rem Koolhaas’s 2008 Spiegel interview:

    “I have a very hard time with the expression “star architect.” It gives the impression of referring to people with no heart, egomaniacs who are constantly doing their thing, completely divorced from any context. I believe that this is a grotesque insult to members of a profession who – to the extent that I know my colleagues – go to great lengths to find the right thing, the appropriate thing, for each individual case.”

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/rem-koolhaas-an-obsessive-compulsion-towards-the-spectacular-a-566655.html

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I believe that the idea behind the word is of great value to our profession. To think that a developer might actually seek out a “starchitect” to add value to his project is not a bad thing. That our contribution to the project is giving value to that project. That “design” matters. We need to get out of our own heads and into that of the public realm where the majority think we just complicate things for our own ego’s sake. That we know something they may not be aware of. That we can enrich their lives. That we (our designs) are worth the complications. That’s what “starchitects” allow for the time being. I think we have had the public’s listening better than we have for decades because of this term. or maybe I’m wrong.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    I find that in the study of architecture some architects like Zaha deserve an empty title that shows their out-of-context designs. However, I agree the term should be dropped in respect for architects who do good work and create responsible projects that go unrecognized. They are the real stars and to call a piece of sculpture “starchitecture” in the place of actual design is an insult to designers who address actual problems, not the notion of design for fame’s sake.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +6

    the appropriate term should be “archistars”

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Will disagree on this one. I think the terms “star architects” or “starchitects” are exactly right for many of these people, even if they are actually worthy of term “serious” architect. They often pursue fame and fortune with no small measure of determination and pride. To say that these terms undermine the value of the noble but less famous is wishful romanticism; objection to these terms strikes me as the classic case of architects taking themselves too seriously, and I have been around a lot of them. Nice folks, but really, somebody needs a nap.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Dear All,

    Instead of arguing whether we can use the term “starchitect” or architect, why no one is willing to discuss if the public really understand what an architect do?
    What do we really do, how we do it and based on which context/norms/needs/concept is in fact out of the public reach and is being generally ignored.

    We really need some common sense and a way to reach the public, after all they are the ones using the projects.
    If stararchitect is a word that used to spread somw awarenes, please keep on using it and keep your jealousy somwhere else.

    Just focus on useful things.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    Sounds to me like someone is perhaps jealous of those with “starchitect” status. I fail to see how it discredits the seriousness of these individuals or is a derogatory term. For some, the goal of becoming a “starchitect” is the heart of professional competition–why seek to deny competition? In my personal opinion, the United States is suffering from a war on competition… I say congratulations to those who have earned the right to be called “starchitect.”

  10. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Great insight on behalf of the author and well written piece. Good to know that organizations such as the AIA are endorsing and honoring collaborative achievements. I hope the spirit of collaboration will be more descriptive of the profession than that of the lone architect.

  11. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    It’s all very well to criticise the choice of words used by journalists and critics, but the truth is that language is an uncontrolled, organic entity – if the word was of no use or significance, it would never have become so commonly used. It is a sign of the times that such a compound has been coined – wouldn’t it be more valuable to analyse why, rather than voucher censorship?

    The word has negative connotations, that is true – it is a symptom of ‘brand’ architecture, a contemporary trend in which certain architects’ names are used to make a statement for a corporation or council, ahead of other, potentially more worthy, designs. Whether people believe this to be fair or not can be heartily debated, but the fact the word exists at all is fascinating, and full of meaning.

    I am therefore astounded that one letter send from an individual has led to Archdaily’s sweeping declaration:

    “Not only did we agree to retire this problematic and shallow descriptor of some instrumental members of our profession…”

    Retire a word? Really? To me, that represents a huge misunderstanding of how language evolves. When the word truly becomes irrelevant or ‘passed its shelf life’, it will, slowly but surely, cease to be used – naturally. In my opinion, the idea that an entire online organisation would contrive to ‘retire’ a word is verging on Orwellian…

    Let it live or die by itself Archdaily!

    https://www.facebook.com/TheAngryArchitect

  12. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    “Tubular” and “swell” have been retired – I think mostly.

    “MVP” is like “Starchitect”.

    We live in a culture fascinated with celebrity. No has spoken about the immense effort – alone and without applause – that allowed the MVP’s and Starchitect’s to distinguish themselves in their respective fields.

    The training, solo work and years of no recognition – wouldn’t it be great to finally be recognized publicly? Especially, in American spirit?

    ((If we do not embrace our culture, we will have no influence in changing it.))

    Perhaps more damaging to the profession, are organization’s like the AIA who do not protect architect/architecture from computer people using the term.

    That is annoying to no end – type in architecture jobs and google returns endless computer jobs. So much for pride in our word – it does much to dilute the profession. ((Just what is architecture these days?))

    I even had lengthy discussions with NYT’s reporter Brian Weber, about the term “architect” being used to describe a train heist plot in one of his articles. He said I took myself too seriously.

    It is correct usage, true to English definition, but in my opinion in bad taste. He has another perspective as a highly trained writer and reporter.

    ((Starchitect does more good to stimulate American discourse than bad.))

    It is a qualifier that makes Joe Q Public willing to listen. If: every building, every garden, every chair you design challenges conventional notions of design – while sensibly moving forward, solves the program, and stops people in their tracks you are probably well on your way to Starchitectdom.

    If you simply solve programs, but the work does not elicit emotional reaction – as most buildings do not – you probably will not elicit such terms.

    Reach out. Strain your mind to the best possible solutions. Make something beautiful.

    Trevor Pan

  13. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I do agree this statement by Chris…”For some, the goal of becoming a “starchitect” is the heart of professional competition–why seek to deny competition? In my personal opinion, the United States is suffering from a war on competition… I say congratulations to those who have earned the right to be called “starchitect.”

    Starchitecture is a good word that makes a few exceptional talented architects in the world to become a true starchitects.

    I predict that only 2% of the architects in the world are true Starchitects….others are just called architects…..

    The word Starchitecture is so valuable that some of the future trends starchitects in the world have quickly registered the business domain names Starchitecture.com, Starchitecture.it, Starchitecture.co, Starchitecture.net, Starchitecture.eu, Starchitecture.ca etc

Share your thoughts