Architecture for the other 99 per cent

So long, Frank Gehry. The design world turns on ‘starchitecture’ and its excesses

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Several days before the opening of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, the most important architectural exhibition in the world, a middle-aged New York architect, Tod Williams, was shuffling around inside a rustic building adjacent to the Venice’s Arsenale, a massive brick complex several city blocks long where the Venetians formerly built their ships. It was a stifling hot day and Williams, bare-chested and dressed in a pair of baggy shorts, was arranging gray wood boxes contributed by several dozen leading figures from the architecture world.

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, winner of architecture world’s top award, the Pritzker Prize, had sent in a box topped with a series of small glass bottles filled with paint pigments. American architect Brad Cloepfil had filled his box with carved tree branches. Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam’s box has had a collage hanging from it that included doll limbs and black feathers that almost didn’t make it into the show because it was temporarily impounded by Italian customs.

It was no accident that architectural models were not on display. “We said, ‘Do anything you wish,’” said Williams, “But fill it with something personal, something that is not architecture.”

Williams is one of a select group invited to develop exhibits for this year’s Biennale by its director, British architect David Chipperfield. And his exhibit is not the only one that could just as easily inhabit an art show as one on architecture. Near the entrance to the Arsenale is a video in a darkened room that was produced by a team headed by British architect Norman Foster. As loud audio track alternates between roars from crowds and snippets of melodic music, illuminated names of famous architects scroll across the floor. Most of the stimulation comes from the four walls where a kaleidoscope of images flashes by including ones of ruins, cheering fans at sports stadiums, and mesmerized soldiers at Nazi rallies.

Yes architecture is supposed to be the backdrop at this year’s Biennale. Chipperfield’s theme for the show is “Common Ground,” a term freighted with connotations of civic engagement. As such, it can be read as a veiled attack on what has become known as “starchitecture,” big budget, signature-style buildings that dramatically transform cityscapes, often with blatant disregard for the neighbours.

It’s true that the superstars who grab the headlines are all here: Bernard Tschumi, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and the others. But they have been instructed to leave their egos at home. Chipperfield repeatedly told them that he did not want to see architectural models in isolation but rather presentations that “illustrate common and shared ideas that form the basis of an architectural culture.”

Chipperfield, a starchitect himself, has indicated that the profession needs to reform. He has compared his colleagues to “perfume brands at Duty Free, on a pedestal singular and isolated,” and in an interview this past May with Dezeen magazine, he called attention to the “99.99 percent of the rest of the world that architects are not dealing with.”

Chipperfield is not the first cultural gatekeeper to ostensibly turn away from celebrating architecture that is fast becoming emblematic of over-the-top indulgence. The new architecture critic at The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, has incurred the ire of many big-name architects because instead of reviewing their buildings, he has been concentrating on urban parks in low-income New York City neighborhoods and public housing retrofits in Paris suburbs. Kimmelman has been defiant about his agenda. “We’ve been so fixated on fancy new buildings that we’ve lost sight of the spaces they occupy and we share,” he wrote in one of his first columns published late last year, titled “Treasuring Urban Oases.”

A similar reorientation is under way at the influential architecture department of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, where recent shows have focused on addressing climate change and the foreclosure crisis, which the show ties to unsustainable trends in urban planning that date back to the days of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City.

The current world financial crisis, along with the mounting criticism of starchitecture in the design press, has pushed some leading architects to examine their responsibility for the current state of affairs. As Chipperfield states in his introduction to the Biennale, “If architecture is to be more than the privileged, exceptional moments of our built world, we must find a more engaged collaboration of talents and resources.”

Chipperfield is perfectly cast for the role of a soul-searching starchitect. He has designed fancy hotels, such as the Bryant Park Hotel in New York City, museums, such as the Turner Contemporary, outside of London, and high-end stores throughout the world for luxury brands, such as Dolce & Gabbana. But his work, which can be described as “contextual modernism,” has received accolades for its sensitivity in dealing with existing buildings and neighborhoods.

With his mild manner and his sartorial sensibilities, which tend towards anonymous blue suit jackets matched with white shirts, Chipperfield also looks the part—at least compared with the cast of characters practicing today: Rem Koolhaas typically dresses head to toe in Prada, Bernard Tschumi covers his neck in bright red scarves and Zaha Hadid’s standard outfit is a silky drape.

But there is often a gap between architecture’s high-minded rhetoric and what it delivers. It is true that some installations in “Common Ground” explore the controversy that often comes with signature-style buildings. Section models of Herzog & de Meuron’s unfinished Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, a project bedeviled by enormous cost overruns, are displayed in the context of walls pasted over with the many newspaper articles written about the building’s travails.

And a few pieces in the exhibit manage to provide roadmaps for designing new types of structures. One is a full-scale representation of a vaulted house from India made of brick, terra cotta and recycled elements that was designed by Anupama Kundoo, a relatively unknown architect. The structure mixes modernist and traditional aesthetics and was built using high-tech and low-tech methods.

But the shortcomings of the profession as it is currently practiced are highlighted by one of the most provocative exhibits, by an installation from Rem Koolhaas’s firm, OMA, that nostalgically looks back at more optimistic times. Titled Public Works: Architecture by Civil Servants, the work includes graffiti and photographs of government architects and the mostly Brutalist architecture they built during the 1960s and early 1970s. It celebrates a period when European cities had large public works departments and employed architects to design innovative public buildings. It was a time when there truly was “common ground” between the profession and the general public.

In contrast, these days, the profession’s only recession-proof sector appears to be in the luxury towers and hotels designed for the one percent that continue to break ground in first-tier cities around the world. For the superrich, owning an apartment in a building designed by a so-called “starchitect” such as Richard Meir or Rem Koolhaas has become akin to owning a priceless work of art.

Absent a real revolution in taste, it is likely that the one per cent will continue to want extravagant buildings to flaunt their wealth and power. Starchitects doubtless will be willing to oblige. Common Ground is not going to change the status quo. Rather, it is an act of hypocrisy that starchitects who spend their lives working for the one percent are spending their summer vacations blurring the lines between themselves and the 99 percent.

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