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The Experts Weigh In: is 'Starchitecture' Problematic?

Welcome back to Thinking Big, wherein journalist Bridget Moriarity (whose work has been published in Travel + Leisure, Art + Auction, and Time Out New York, among others) joins Curbed to explore large-scale trends and topics within the design and architecture community.

This past winter, the London-based architect David Chipperfield voiced his objections to the notion of "starchitecture" in an interview with Architectural Digest: "Often architects work too hard trying to make their buildings look different. It's like we're actors let loose on a stage, all speaking our parts at the same time in our own private languages without an audience."

Starchitecture has been a phenomenon ever since Frank Gehry built his spectacular Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the late 1990s. Gehry's building has become a cultural pilgrimage site in a small corner of northeastern Spain, bringing flocks of tourists to its sleepy Basque town. The building, with its otherworldly angular titanium façade, is an example of starchitecture at its best. "In terms of site planning, it is a very contextually savvy building, even if photographs make it look like something very unexpected," says Barry Bergdoll, formerly the Museum of Modern Art's chief curator of architecture and design. Ironically, it's Gehry himself who's perhaps the strongest critic of the term "starchitect"; he railed against it in a 2010 Playboy interview and more recently in a Financial Times piece in which he asks arts writer Peter Aspden, "You are not going to call me a fucking 'star­chitect'? I hate that."

Despite some reservations on the topic of starchitecture, Bergdoll believes that the majority of its so-called practitioners happen to be quite talented. "Take Rem Koolhaas, as probably someone who comes to people's lips immediately when the word starchitecture [comes] about," he suggests. "He's also one of the most creative, provocative, boundary-moving people to practice architecture, and also one of the most influential and somebody who is always renewing himself."

But the risk with starchitecture, Bergdoll points out, is that it marginalizes all but a handful of architects and their work. And it's a minor part of what architecture is about and thus has diverted attention from some of the more noble efforts of design, such as mitigating climate change or adapting to huge demographic shifts. "Like all celebrity culture," Bergdoll says, "it just becomes a kind of self-fulfilling thing to take some incredibly talented individuals and incredibly important contributions and make them into fetish objects."

Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, has long concurred with Chipperfield. "I think buildings can be distinctive and distinguished, but they can be distinctive and distinguished within the wider context of their settings," he explains. Not every building has to blend in—there are government or cultural buildings, for example, that are known for their uniqueness—but more often than not they should fit in, while simultaneously featuring enough details and qualities to make things interesting for passersby.

Stern designed the residential building 15 Central Park West (above), dubbed by the Times "the reigning superstar of Manhattan trophy residences." It "takes on some of the design aspects of neighboring buildings," Stern says, "but I think most people find it an identifiable building on the skyline."

Does he hope that his works are recognizable? "I like people to see a building of mine and say, 'That's a great building. Who is the architect?' And then somebody says, 'Well, Bob Stern was the architect.' And they say, 'Oh, that figures.'"

"That architects are strong personalities that are known by the public at large is great. That they can only make buildings that are about themselves, and not about the larger realm—that's not great," concludes Stern, who is currently at work on a trio of New York City projects: a tall condominium apartment building in Manhattan's East 60s, another one facing Central Park South, and a rental apartment complex near the High Line at 30th Street.

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who could perhaps be classed as a rising starchitect, has a different worry: that starchitects tend to repeat the same visual vocabulary with each new creation. "I think the equivalent would be a bad actor who sounds and looks the same no matter what the role he or she is cast in," he says. Ingels generally thinks of the practice of architecture, though, as more akin to painting than acting. "I actually like to compare the art of designing a building for someone, a private client or a company or institution, to the art of painting a portrait. In the end, the success of the portrait is dependent on the artist's capacity to express him or herself as an artist, but, more importantly, in expressing the appearance but also the character or the personality, the aura, the soul if you like, of the subject."

Still, it's not entirely a negative if people are drawn to the work of particular architects, Ingels believes. "The more interest you have, the more attracted to a subject you are, eventually you end up knowing more about it." And back to acting: "It's not a bad thing if you end up going to watch a great story because you're secretly in love with Leonardo DiCaprio."

· Frank Gehry coverage [Curbed National]
· Rem Koolhaas coverage [Curbed National]
· Bjarke Ingels coverage [Curbed National]
· Robert A.M. Stern coverage [Curbed National]
· All Thinking Big posts [Curbed National]