Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Starchitect Problem

I've not had the chance to read this book yet, but I've been hearing a lot about it since it was published:

But now maybe I don't want to bother.  This review by Blair Kamin is the first I've seen anybody be particularly critical about what Silber's done.  Considering my previous post, Kamin restores my faith.

I'm involved with the history of this great art form because I love Architecture.  Aside from the unfortunately uninspired bastardizations of Modernism to serve Economics from the '60s into the late '70s, there's really not much I don't love. 

This is why I always hated Lewis Mumford.  Mumford was such an insufferable curmudgeon.  He didn't like ANYTHING.  If New York's wrecking balls had been left in the hands of Lewis Mumford for a few months, there wouldn't have been anything left of the city except for about fifteen random buildings spread out around the island.  I suppose he thought he was doing the Architectural community a great service, but really he just sounded like he didn't even enjoy what he did for a living.  

Similarly, it would sound as if Silber would prefer Architecture remain stagnantly in the 1990s without ever progressing.  I've defended Gehry elsewhere before, but whether his buildings always work the way they ought to is immaterial.  One artist cannot be all things to all people and his contributions are astounding, anyway.  Gehry realized that we're living through an incredible turning point with information technology in which new solutions can be found to new problems.  So he's set his creativity free to envision new problems in structure and form, and then find the solutions to realize them.

He's actually created new software customized to the problems he was trying to solve.  He's opened up new doors for new forms of architecture, a new sculptural landscape.  Much like the discovery of poured concrete, he's freed future architecture from constraints that were once considered to be a given.  I consider that reason for celebration.

So sometimes it hasn't worked quite as well, so what?  You can't do something revolutionary without a few slip-ups along the way.  If everybody built structures that were easy to understand, gave contractors an easy road, and broke no rules, then nothing new could ever really be accomplished.  I've heard it said some visitors to Bilbao literally get nauseous standing in its contorted spaces.  I think this is a meaningless argument.  Airplanes still have air-sickness bags because, it could be argued, humans aren't supposed to fly.  But Amtrak is still losing money.

The point is not whether or not you find Gehry's work aesthetically pleasing, but rather that innovation always comes at a price.

On the one hand, of course good Architecture responds graciously to the needs of its occupants...and perhaps the occupants after them.  But Architecture doesn't just make programs into structures in terms of one correct answer to the problem.  Relatively sophisticated computer software could do that.  Architecture is a practical endeavor, to be sure, but it is also an Art; buildings that do nothing more than "work well" are not Art.  A basic unadorned lean-to shed or auto-body shop works perfectly well, but that isn't Architecture.

Architecture also creates forms and structures and models of what behavior and uses can be, and as in the case of Palladio or traditional American Colonial residences, for instance, what uses and protocols for their occupants should be.  It encourages certain perspectives on how space is arranged over others, asks us questions about the way we conduct ourselves.

Here's an hypothetical situation:
I'm in a great library doing research and nature calls.  But the men's room isn't just right next to me in the reading room.  Instead I have to go all the way down a long hallway and up a flight of stairs to get to it.  I could grumble and complain that the architect was a fool and didn't know what s/he was doing.  Or I could relish the trip and realize en route I pass by a stunning view of the library's impressive landscaped rotunda.  Along the way, I might accidentally bump into a friend or colleague using a different part of the library who I never would have met up with otherwise.  Perhaps in some cases it's all a mistake, but Architecture has the ability to create these kind of experiences on purpose.

To elaborate on what Kamin said of Wright: he actually came right out and said that great Architecture was supposed to leak.  In some ways, I think he had a very good point.

©2007, Ryan Witte


twestgard said...

I like the idea that "great architecture is supposed to leak." It's a way of reconciling the situation in a positive way. Part of the reason you buy great, innovative architecture is so that you can brag about its great, innovative nature and show what an adventurous and wealthy person or institution you are. We might well assume that you are adventurous and wealthy enough not to be upset if the building leaks. If you wanted reliable structural stability, you should have bought that instead of innovation.

That said, I think that should be made expressly clear to the buyers of the building, especially if they aren't experienced. In the case of MIT & Gehry, MIT has some responsibility not to act like innocent deer in the headlights - what does the "T" in "MIT" stand for, anyway? That's what makes it a complex situation. Did Gehry go far enough to explain that the design was experimental? Did MIT go far enough in using their own expertise to try to understand the risks? Then you have to balance those two sides to see where the breakdown really occurred.

Another way to look at it is a feud between two things in the stratosphere that doesn't really affect us here on the ground. But where's the fun in that?

Ryan Witte said...

Seriously. MIT is probably the most highly respected institution of its kind in the entire country. If a Doctorate in Engineering from MIT doesn't lead to the road to a Nobel Prize then nothing does. They should understand the risks of experiment better than anyone.

Their lawsuit, like this book, could cause dangerous repercussions if major institutions become too wary of unusual architecture. It isn't like we don't have people like Trump to build nauseatingly bland behemoths all over the world, we don't need any more of them.

William S said...

I think MIT got exactly what they wanted: A Starchitect Brand building that draws attention to their school. They knew this when they hired Frank Gherry, they knew the risks and they knew the positive effects a controvercy was for them when they made a lawsuit against him. They dont have the brightest minds at MIT for nothing. This is not to say Gehry should not have been smarter and hired better engineers.

John Silber's book is a long opinion column by a guy who knows very little about architecture. He gets credibility and attention because of his stature as a politician and university president. He just applies common sense meat and potato criticism to a very complex issue.In fact anyone could write this book.

1. Just list all the things you dont like about starchitecture and elaborate profusely

2.pick some other buildings you do like and elaborate a little so you dont come off like a total crank. Don't be shy if you contradict yourself in the process.

3.Be sure to ignore your editor if he/she asks you to provide solid evidence to back up your outlandish statements and you are done.

If you want a serious criticism of starchitecture you will be disappointed severely by this book. If you want the opinion of a faild politician on Starchitectre whose gripes resonates with your own fustrations with the current state of starchitecture, buy this book.

See this blog for a fitting review:

Ryan Witte said...


I love the Archie Bunker analogy. Now I'm certain I don't want to read this garbage, it sounds like he hasn't the slightest clue what he's talking about.