“Architectural publication, criticism and even education are now focused relentlessly on the enticing visual image. The longing for singular, memorable imagery subordinates other aspects of buildings, isolating architecture in disembodied vision.” – Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, from his essay “Toward an Architecture of Humility”
Anyone paying even remote attention to the domain of high architectural design in the past decade will surely recognize the name Frank Gehry. The celebrity architect (or if you prefer to use the portmanteau word used to describe such practitioners: starchitect) is best known for his unconventional creations-buildings that billow, swoop and shimmer. Whether the project is a concert hall, museum, or university building, the clientele hiring Gehry is paying for a brand name product. In this sense, a ‘Gehry-designed building’ is akin to a piece of fashion – with the value of the building based primarily on the name of the designer and not on how well it operates for end users as a work of architecture.
Gehry was not alone in this respect. Real estate developers were quick to jump on the trend toward ‘signature’ buildings. Hiring other marquee architects such as Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Santiago Calatrava, high-end condo developers everywhere from Manhattan to Dubai were willing to deal with paying exorbitant design fees for the assumed marketing advantages of associating with such big names.
But now the obsession with starchitecture may now itself be outdated. Thanks to the financial meltdown, the party may be ending both for starchitects and their credit wielding developer patrons. Not surprisingly, ambitious projects like the Gehry designed Grand Avenue development in Los Angeles and the Calatrava designed Chicago Spire have been put on hold and perhaps consigned to oblivion.
These are just some of the most visible examples of the construction slowdown as it relates to high architectural design. Less renown figures in the architectural profession, both sole practitioners and those working in corporate firms, also find themselves struggling to retain projects. The imagined career trajectories of wannabe starchitects may be yet another casualty of the financial slowdown.
Ironically, the economic crisis relates back to the very thing architects are entrusted with – the built environment. Of course, architects had a hand in only a very small percentage of what is actually built in the United States. During the most recent boom cycle of construction – at least until the last year or two – the single family detached housing developments in the suburbs and urban fringes dominated the market. These developments were often promoted in a manner that made the house as an investment vehicle paramount to it being a place of long-term inhabitance and raising a family.
The subprime mortgage crisis has since debunked the commonly accepted strategy that real estate is always a ‘safe’ investment for the average American. But this is not only a suburban phenomenon, despite the claims by many in the architecture and urban planning professions that the real estate meltdown represented the triumph of the city over the suburbs. In reality the city development scene is also collapsing, a bit later perhaps, but largely because it took a while for the financial fallout to reach large urban projects.
Ironically the starchitecture so celebrated by the popular media may have contributed to this. The fact that the majority of architecturally revered high-rise housing developments built in the past decade are geared toward the ‘luxury market’ may have slowed the potential market for in-city living. In too many cases, developers in the urban luxury condo market have relied on cash-wealthy individuals to purchase their units as second homes, a market that is certain to crash as the asset bubble bursts.
The current recession is a trying time for most Americans, and as such, it could prove a pivotal time for architects, planners and those who care about the built environment to reassess their roles in a democratic culture. Great or monumental architecture – from imperial Rome to Napoleon III’s Paris and Dubai today – has often been built at the discretion of powerful religious institutions, monarchies or omnipotent dictatorships. Democratic architecture, in contrast, tends more to the functional and efficient, whether in the form of William Levitt’s suburbia or the high-rise towers that accommodated corporations.
The future of urban development in the United States is likely to follow a different trajectory. For one thing environmental sustainability is likely to frame the decisions made in regards to urban planning in the coming years. In this context, metallic structures like those favored by Gehry and his acolytes do not represent a very energy-efficient form; in places like Los Angeles, Phoenix or Dubai they reflect sunlight and heat up the surrounding environment. The next era of American architecture will have to deal with such issues and also with the restrictions of a strapped fiscal environment.
With funding for flashy and iconic buildings screeching to a halt, the era of the architect as detached genius and artiste appears to be coming to a close. In order to retain relevance at this crucial point in time, architects would be wise to come out from their ivory towers and shift their focus to becoming more civically engaged and oriented towards the needs of the middle class.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, as the definitions of traditional urban centers, suburbs and metropolitan regions become more blurred, so does the role of the architect and planner. After the chaos of the current economic recession is settled, most construction is likely to be focused on updating existing infrastructure and building new ‘green’ infrastructure. What America needs most right now from the architectural profession is not more Frank Gehrys but a new commitment to build an environment that is both sustainable and affordable.
Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. Raised in the town of Los Gatos, on the edge of Silicon Valley, Adam developed a keen interest in the importance of place within the framework of a highly globalized economy. He currently lives in San Francisco where he works in the architecture profession.