Solid Work Too Often Overlooked

Article excerpt

Laymen hear too much about architectural stars and learn too little about decent, unspectacular designers and their work.

This came to mind as I pondered a picture of Philip Johnson, wearing a hat modeled precisely after the Gothic-inspired tower of his PPG Industries building in Pittsburgh. The photo accompanied a New York Times article about photographs by Josef Astor. Mr. Astor captured architects dressed as their buildings for a feature in Vanity Fair's July issue.

The Times noted that some architects whom Vanity Fair had asked to photograph weren't available and that Rem Koolhaas had refused to join the new costume craze. This is ironic, because Mr. Koolhaas, an avant-garde architect who drew 800 people to a February lecture in Washington, wrote at length about architects dressing up as edifices in his 1978 book "Delirious New York," which was republished two years ago.

In that book, Mr. Koolhaas described the greatest architectural costume party ever: At the 1931 "Fete Moderne" in New York, a constellation of architects became the structures they created.

The best costume was that of William Van Alen, who appeared as his Chrysler Building, complete with an art deco spire as a hat. In the most famous party picture in the history of architecture, Van Alen stands with six fellow star designers clad as their creations.

Mr. Koolhaas does not want to dress up, he informed the editor of Vanity Fair: "Unfortunately, I can hardly imagine a less convincing way to celebrate great architects today than to ask them to wear their costumes."

The Vanity Fair feature appears to be part of a well-established habit of celebrating architecture by making architects celebrities. This is unsurprising in our fame-crazed age, but our architecture suffers for it. …