The Weary Starchitect

The debate over 'starchitects' has reached a new height as of this week when Beverly Willis wrote about the term in the New York Times.  It's not often you see much of architecture/architects in the newspapers, especially in regards to the status of those few that have given a face to the profession.  Launching an attack of sorts, Willis wrote about the status of 'starchitects' and their demise to the practice of architecture, a piece that was both well overdue and beautifully crafted.  

A starchitect - for those few readers that aren't affiliated with the architecture profession - is exactly what it sounds like.  It is an architect who has reached star-like levels (rockstar if you're Bjarke Ingels) through their firm's work and implementation.  Usually these characters are at the top of the food chain with fees ranging from 20-50% (note that most firms are in the range of 5-15%) and a brand that is idolized by students coming up through design schools everywhere.  A starchitect is basically the rock&roll star of the profession, exemplifying what "architecture" is to the rest of the world acting as a representative for all of us non-avant-garde practitioners.  Here's the real problem with these individuals, they represent a false likelihood of practice and a far-removed ideology of what the actual practice of Architecture is.  A starchitect isn't a star, an architect and their respective firm are the real star(s).

Architecture is a Team Sport

In a field littered with collaboration and teamwork, it's almost asinine to think one person could take credit for doing an entire job.  Buildings are extremely complex, they are likened to the human body in all of their operations and inner-functions.  It takes a huge team of skilled practitioners years to design, coordinate and implement a new building, yet architects such as Frank Ghery, Zaha Hadid and Bjarke Ingels claim full responsibility through their namesake and brand.  I'm wondering when the last time BIG's founder actually approved an envelope assembly or construction standard.  Truth be told, the only way that architecture can be successful and done correctly is to rely on other team members.  Interdisciplinary projects are gaining speed as technology rapidly evolves and the built environment becomes saturated with buildings that are far more complex than just a skin with some floors.  The best way to win at architecture is to be a part of a team, other than that good luck building an entire project by yourself.

The starchitect has propelled an expectation from many that there is hope in becoming a self-practitioner around the world designing hundreds of thousands of square feet per year.  Many see it as a possibility to do the job by themselves or with a small group, but the simple belief in that defines ignorance and naivete in a designer that is unfit for actually becoming an Architect.  What makes an excellent architect is one that is able to identify with a collective group of individuals.  Whether that's a few or a few hundred, there is no single designer that can ever take credit for most of these larger-scale commercially-developed projects.  The starchitect has skewed the expectation of individuals creating a sense of a return to the early 20th century when the old white male (foreign) architect was the only one recognized for a building.  

The Expensive Architect

Another huge problem with starchitects is their ability to get away with charging fees that far exceed the product they are providing.  Much like department store mark ups on designer fashion, starchitects can charge insane amounts without faltering because they are selling their name.  The owner is only paying as much as they are to receive larger amounts of funding/donations because when a proposal says the right name, you can bet it'll collect the right amount of money.  This group of avant-garde designers is creating a false sense that architecture is not for all, only the ones that can afford good design.  They are also putting a price tag that is exorbitant on the service they are providing, one that they usually only do half the work for (most design firms will sub out CD sets to other firms to take liability off of their design staff and carry less licensed professionals).

From Render to Reality

Starchitect buildings usually contribute to the belief that their work will remain supreme and of the highest quality.  Dating back to Frank Lloyd Wright and all the way up to Ghery, we have seen the buildings they produce fall flat functionally and 'mechanically'.  Leaks, poor spatial planning and inept craftsmanship through implementation of near-impossible construction methods that never had the right construction administrative staff present.  These buildings are falsities created on paper and never fully implemented since construction and fabrication may never have been the team's main goals (isn't that the point of building a building?)  A great example is the construction photos that are emerging from BIG's W57 project.  Beautifully depicted through visuals and words, the building appears heavy and clunky as it grows out of the ground.  Not only this project for Bjarke, but previous projects such as 'The Mountain' and '8Tallet' have not delivered on green spaces - which have browned due to insufficient sunlight and care - and poor detailing, especially on interior spaces where human contact is the greatest. It's a sad reality of our world, but no matter who you are, money and budgets drive projects.  VE processes are known to be an architect's worst nightmare so the lavishly expensive products starchitects bear usually aren't even built as specified because so much had to be stripped away just to get the edifice out of the ground.

While many of these aforementioned designers have (and will remain) role models to the way I think and conceptualize architecture, I have come to realize the harm they do upon our profession.  This is a collaborative and team-drive profession that no one single person can take the credit for.  Remember the next time you see a Hadid building go out for bid, she may never have even seen the latter parts of documentation.  It's the team behind the starchitect that really should be realized for (attempting to) bringing these buildings up from a sketch to reality.  If they actually function or not, well, you get what you pay for woeful client.

VIA| New York Times