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Can early acclaim for an architect be a handicap - even the kiss of death?

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Too many architects once heralded as rising stars have seen their work descend into caricature and recycled motifs.

In this cautionary tale, Peter Buchanan asks whether early recognition can stunt burgeoning creativity and originality

Our restless, consumerist, neophiliac society is always seeking the new, the next thing, the emergent - as suggestive of an underlying antsy, advertising-inflamed, pervasive dissatisfaction that is intrinsic to our culture’s unsustainability. This search for novelty applies even to architecture. Yet, besides being about innovation and originality, architecture should also be a conservative discipline, promising a satisfying stability and drawing on and preserving past wisdom - something undervalued by modern architects. So, can early acclaim for an emerging architect, particularly for being a herald of the new, be a handicap as much as a boon - even the kiss of death? There are good reasons, explored here, to think so.

Numerous architects displaying early talent have failed to flower into full maturity as designers, in part because of the pressures that inevitably follow premature recognition. Some that immediately come to mind are Richard Meier, Arata Isozaki, Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel, Santiago Calatrava and Enric Miralles. Something similar applies in extreme degree to Frank Gehry - he had been a conventional modern architect before reinventing himself when remodelling his own house, before collapsing into self-caricature (although the Bilbao Guggenheim is successful as site-specific sculpture). Worse still than this failure to fulfil the promise, perhaps, is the search for stimulation through novelty which compounds other more prevalently problematic aspects of today’s architectural scene.

‘Numerous architects displaying early talent have failed to flower into full maturity as designers, in part because of the pressures that inevitably follow premature recognition’

A crucial caveat is that the critique presented in this polemic does not apply to much, if not most, of what is brought to wider attention in the AR’s annual Emerging Architecture series. This provides an important service in at least two ways: reminding us of the very different circumstances - in terms of such things as cultural and climatic contexts, and the budgets and other means available - that condition architecture around the world; and emphasising that the most constrained circumstances need be no impediment to quality architecture.

Much of the work shown from the developing world in previous years in this series incites admiration and pleasure because the limited resources have been put at the service of the community, rather than to demonstrate the architect’s originality and creativity. Consequently, the results, even when wilfully quirky, tend to delight rather than irk. The crucial difference between the laudable works and those that are less so tends to be due to the underlying wholesome design intentions. It is also significant that the Emerging Architecture series shows only built works, hence those exhibiting a degree of proven viability. A current pernicious tendency is to overvalue designs that exist only on paper - a key impetus for this, the influence of which spread globally, were the exhibitions at the AA during Alvin Boyarsky’s reign, which displayed the student works of various units. Premature yet heady recognition has resulted in student stars never progressing to building, but clinging to unwarranted star status as tutors.

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Source: Tim Street-Porter/OTTO

Frank Gehry: own house, Santa Monica, California (1977)

To contextualise and ground our exploration of this uncritical, thoughtlessly endorsed search and acclaim for the new, and as a timely reminder of what should be special, if not unique, about architecture as a discipline, it is useful to state what should really be the obvious (but, all too often, seems forgotten today). This is particularly necessary with architecture in its currently confused state, reflecting inevitably pressures and confusions in society at large as well as being conditioned by the still-potent residue of the excessive reductionism that characterised modern architecture. Thus, architecture is too seldom considered in its full complexity and completeness as what should be nothing less than the key nexus in which almost all human knowledge and disciplines converge. Also too often forgotten is that architecture is about far more than the provision of such things as shelter, security, economic return and eye-catching form - it is a prime shaper of society and ourselves, as well as a reflection of the world view and values of the times.

Architecture is rooted in, and carries forward selectively, the legacy of the past, including its lifestyles and the modes of spatial deployment that accommodated them. Equally importantly, though, it must respond to present needs and exigencies while also addressing, confident in its long-term validity, an as yet unknown future. Architecture is thus about permanence and change - or, more precisely, about providing a long-term framework that will permit considerable flexibility. It is thus healthily conservative - in terms of preserving, if also transforming, the legacy of the past as well as spurning spurious ephemeral fads - as much as it is innovative so as to meet new conditions, exploit new materials and techniques and so on. It is a discipline that is both technical and artistic, marrying the objective and the subjective, quite likely drawing simultaneously on the leading edge of science and technique (including such things as ecology and climate modelling), while also concerned with aesthetics, meaning, cultural resonances and the various modes of wellbeing of humans and nature. Architects may thus draw on all branches of psychology, as well as grapple with philosophical conundrums such as how much it should impinge on and shape the lives of its occupants, and how much it should leave to free choice. This broad-ranging complexity is too little appreciated in much contemporary critical assessment of architecture.

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Marqu__s_de_Riscal_winery_Spain_Frank_Gehry_hal_beral_vw_pics_alamy_stock_photos

Source: Hal Beral/VW Pics/Alamy Stock Photos

Frank Gehry: Marqués de Riscal winery, Rioja, Spain (2006)

Although architects draw on inputs from these assessments, architecture is not a discipline for narrow specialists but for broad-ranging generalists who need only sufficient understanding of a specialist field - as well as quick comprehension and mental flexibility - to engage with a wide range of experts. (This is why the influx of PhDs into architectural schools is so problematic, to put it mildly.) A key skill required is creative synthesis, along with patiently honed, empathic insight and discriminating judgement. Acquiring the latter, in relation to not only aesthetic issues but also those more philosophic conundrums as to how we should live and how much architecture should prescribe this, is why architectural education is, quite rightly, so protracted. Moreover, despite the vast range of knowledge on which it may draw - some of it seemingly abstract and esoteric - architecture is also a fundamentally pragmatic discipline concerned with the applicability of that knowledge in acting upon the world. (Applicability and usefulness are crucial tests that too much current architectural theory would fail.)

This lengthy elaboration of architecture’s wide-ranging complexity of concerns, and the centrality of patiently honed judgement, is to stress that the mastery of architecture is a protracted affair that cannot be rushed. Hence, even architects who were already brilliant in their teens and twenties, as were Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier (who completed the Arts and Crafts-ish Villa Fallet when he was 16), match many other architects in only entering their mature phase in their late sixties. This was the age at which Wright built Falling Water and the first Usonian houses, and Le Corbusier the Ronchamp chapel and the buildings in India. The sustained joy of discovery and constant learning no doubt also contribute to the legendary longevity of architects who tend not to retire even when in their eighties, nineties or, in some cases, past their centenary - I’m thinking here of Oscar Niemeyer or Giovanni Michelucci, who died a couple of days short of his 100th birthday having slipped while inspecting progress on his latest building.

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Beyeler_Foundation_Museum_Switzerland_Renzo_Piano_Hemis_Alamy

Source: Hemis/Alamy

Renzo Piano: Beyeler Foundation Museum, Basel, Switzerland (1997)

On the plus side, early acclaim may bring architects a steady flow of work with which to hone their skills and develop their design approach, both broadening the range of concerns engaged with and deepening their understanding and creative expression. On the downside, however, the curse that afflicts many is that early acclaim instead inhibits this process of steady development and maturation. Not least of the problems is the avalanche of commissions and requests to participate in invited competitions that come from clients and cities desperate to prove they are hip, ahead of the curve in recognising talent and wanting to be patrons of the up and coming.

‘Besides the expectation of recycling recognisable features of the acclaimed works, the overload of work is especially debilitating’

Besides the expectation of recycling recognisable features of the acclaimed works (prematurely freezing them in the straitjacket of a brand style), the overload of work is especially debilitating in that it denies the architect any time for the reflective thought necessary for deepening and development. (A major reason ‘elite’ schools of architecture pressure students to sweat over graphically elaborate, labour-intensive presentations is so they have no time to realise that what they are drawing is preposterous bollocks. Surprisingly, this was candidly admitted by some tutors at one such ‘elite’ London school during a private discussion at its end of year show.) The result is that the architect is robbed of opportunities to slowly explore and ponder alternative approaches, thereby enabling development into a ripe maturity. Considering that some of these are genuinely talented figures, this can be a tragedy as their work descends into caricature, a superficial recycling of characteristic motifs.

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100_11th_Avenue_USA_Jean_Nouvel_dfranck_wikimedia_commons

Source: DFranck/Wikimedia Commons

Jean Nouvel: 100 11th Avenue, New York


Being heralded as a rising star may bring fawning clients and big budgets, seemingly an architect’s dream - but something that brings with it some downsides. Good architects acknowledge that their best work is for informed and demanding clients who guide and interact with them, not those impressed by ‘creative’ flights of fantasy and spurious displays of originality. Also, the constraints of a tight budget force careful and ongoing reconsideration of designs, thereby leading to a high level of rich and understated synthesis. Once free from these, architects may simply indulge immature, and often dubious, personal taste and fashionable formal predilections. Hence, constraint can perforce be the enemy of conformity, even if it is the latter that often brings applause.

Another problem brought by sudden success is an office that is too rapidly expanded. The best practices tend to have a slowly grown core of people who thoroughly understand each other, the practice philosophy and the design approach, facilitating an easy collaboration that a quickly assembled office cannot match. Moreover, a large office, while flattering the architect’s status and self-image (and expected by some corporate clients), is a voracious beast demanding a steady throughput of work to remain viable. The architect is then hesitant to reject commissions, so accepting - even seeking out - commissions that are incompatible with the kind of office and workload he or she would have preferred. Such problems are compounded by the tendency of the trendiest architects to attract those so desperate to work for them that they do so for very little - or even pay for the privilege. This is no rumour: a few megastar architects have admitted to me that some in their offices are paying to be there. A seemingly more common, and worse, practice is that of starchitects who don’t pay the pittance that has been promised.

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Source: David C McCarthy AIA

Institut du Monde Arabe, France

Even if a large office is not financially draining, it requires alert supervision, spreading yet more thinly the over-extended attention of the architect. I have watched a harried megastar running from board to board - this was in the 1980s when computers merely supplemented traditional means of drawing - contributing a quick sketch or comment at each one, in a manner reminiscent of a chess grandmaster playing a dozen opponents simultaneously. And all this just to keep busy his too-large staff base on whom he was in part financially dependent. Little wonder the work declined into disappointing caricature, reduced to permutations and combinations of elements from the works that had brought fame. But the key thing? Hardly anybody noticed.

‘Arata Isozaki, who, after what seemed - even at the time - to be a very premature RIBA Gold Medal win, has done nothing good in decades’

A feature of our uncritical times is ‘once a star, always a star’. Look at the number of architects who once did good, or at least interesting, work but in the many years since their early acclaim have done little of quality or interest. Yet they keep landing prestige commissions and being invited to compete in major international architectural competitions. Although this applies to all the architects already listed, an extreme example is Arata Isozaki, who, after what seemed - even at the time - to be a very premature RIBA Gold Medal win, has done nothing good in decades. In contrast, a real master of contemporary Japanese architecture, Yoshio Taniguchi (who should not be judged by New York’s MoMA) remains overlooked. This applies also to starchitects whom history will decree as never having deserved the early acclaim at all, as reflects the confused critical standards of our time.

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Source: Duccio Malagamba

Boarding School, Spain by Enric Miralles

An associated problem is that some of these architects - the once interesting and the mere stars - can, as the saying goes, ‘come to believe their own publicity’ and regard themselves as truly blessed with exceptional talent. Quite apart from the frequent bad behaviour this may occasion - such as a thin-skinned prickliness, like that for which Gehry is notorious, which may, in fact, be a result of insecurity - there are other downsides. Even a quick gestural sketch recording an immediate response to place and programme is seen as a manifestation of genius, encouraged by the pernicious tendency of museums and collectors to treat what are essentially ephemera as valuable artworks. These are then translated too directly into building without being thoroughly reconsidered and reiteratively worked through to become architecture. Something of this sort seems to be behind the striking fall in quality of the work by Renzo Piano, once a hugely talented and important architect.

‘Starchitects give a strong impression of equating irresponsibility with creative genius, encouraged by nonsense rhetoric, their own or that of critics’

Believing yourself to be especially gifted can also legitimate irresponsibility, particularly in relation to budget. Indeed some starchitects give a strong impression of equating irresponsibility with creative genius, encouraged by nonsense rhetoric, their own or that of critics, about how innovative work is inherently risky and how risk must be indulged - hence the numerous examples of often poorly performing buildings that not only run over budget but ultimately cost multiples of the original budget or architect’s estimate. That some starchitects - Gehry, Calatrava and Hadid to name but a few of the more egregious - get away with this consistently and with impunity is a mind-boggling reflection of the careless gullibility of our celebrity-obsessed times. It seems to be a case of: ‘Who cares if the work is relevant, responsible or good - the architect is famous.’

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Source: Yasuhiro Ishimoto

Art Tower, Japan by Arata Isozaki


Celebrity obsession, starchitects, lack of critical standards and relevance, and so on, are all a consequence of these being transitional times. As the modern era wanes, the simple certainties of modern architecture are no longer enough, but much of what will characterise the emergent era and its architecture is as yet unclear. In such circumstances, when it is unclear what constitutes lasting quality and relevance, some architects, particularly the more cynical, seem to have decided instead to pursue easy fame and fortune as starchitects.

The compulsive quest to discover the new (a trend stressed by modernity, an era associated with the now-passé notion of the avant-garde), and the correlated desire to be discovered (consistent with modernity’s stress on individualism), feed further pernicious trends. Modernity’s core underlying idea of an independent objective reality - the idea that underpinned the rise of science to then be disproved 100 years ago by quantum mechanics - resulted in the built environment fragmenting into free-standing object buildings that over-emphasise sculptural form at the expense of physiognomic facade composition and rhythm. As modernity slowly gives way to the emergent Transmodern or Integral era (the successor to postmodernity), so the ‘sunset effect’ buildings of the starchitects exaggerate pathological aspects of modern architecture. Its object fixation (at the expense of creating contiguous urban fabric) and disregard for creating relationships with us humans or neighbouring buildings both result in outlandishly sculptural buildings (icons, Parametricism and so on) that are loudly clamouring to be discovered and given an award. An urgent role for architecture today is to invert such trends and heal the damage wrought by modern architecture by creating buildings that quietly fit into place and reintegrate urban fabric, cementing relationships with neighbouring buildings, the civic spaces they frame, and us humans.

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Qatar National Convention Centre, Doha by Arata Isozaki

All of this is covered in my Big Rethink essays in the AR, 2012-2013. Architectural competitions, awards for unbuilt projects and today’s student end-of-year shows all further inflame these negative tendencies. In such circumstances, it is logical to assume a successful scheme must stand out and make an immediate impact, creating an instantly consumable image. It is unlikely, for instance, that a quietly elegant footbridge would win a competition over a gratuitously sculptural scheme requiring a much greater tonnage of steel. Beyond the critical confusions provoked by these transitional times, this further warps critical judgement within architectural culture. It is significant that almost no new buildings that deeply impressed me in the two decades since I wrote regular criticism were ever properly published in the architectural media. Yet it is such subtly understated and thoroughly accomplished buildings which perform and satisfy in ways that experienced architects admire, that many architects want to study in depth and from which many want to learn.

Architecture of real quality is hardly about immediate impact, with visual ‘wow’. Instead, it has the understated richness that comes from the synthetic resolution of many factors so that new aspects and capacities are discovered and revealed, both in the architecture and the user, with long-term familiarity. Ultimately then, arguably the most pernicious consequence of discovering the new and the emergent is that it reinforces problematic aspects of the status quo. Moreover, it inhibits the emergence of the more complete and relevant architecture we need with increasing urgency if we are to help usher in the emergent Transmodern era that must replace the now dangerously outworn ones of modernity and postmodernity.

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Source: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy Stock Photo

Stadelhofen station, Germany by Santiago Calatrava

 

Lead Image

Richard Meier: the Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (1973). Photograph by Scott Frances/OTTO