Starchitecture: A Modest Proposal

By McGuigan, Cathleen | Newsweek, June 21, 2010 | Go to article overview

Starchitecture: A Modest Proposal


McGuigan, Cathleen, Newsweek


Byline: Cathleen McGuigan

The trophy building is so over. Welcome to the era of design on a diet.

In The Bilbao Effect, a minor satire that played off-Broadway in New York this spring, a world-famous architect named Erhardt Shlaminger is caught in a scandal when his design for a wildly cutting-edge building supposedly drives a woman to suicide. Shlaminger, sporting a flamboyant blue scarf and a pretentious accent, is a sendup of a contemporary starchitect. In the best scene, a model of his offending building is carried onstage: a jumble of pointed metal and sharply angled plastic, it looks, says one character, "like a toaster on steroids." But in comedy, as in life, timing is everything. The trend that the play meant to skewer--dubbed "the Bilbao Effect" after the huge success of Frank Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain--is just about over. The phenomenon of using iconic architecture to promote a city, an institution, or a real-estate development was a product of the economic boom that began in the late 1990s and ended with the recession in 2008.

As Western economies begin to recover, extravagant, eye-popping architecture is giving way to a subtler new aesthetic. In the U.S. and Europe, architectural values are shifting from can-you-top-this designs toward more efficient, functional building. Innovation and experimentation are increasingly directed at sustainability and new technology. For a younger generation of architects in particular, "the spectacle building is kind of a dinosaur," says Rosalie Genevro, director of the Architectural League in New York. Architects, too, are engaging more in collaboration as they turn their attention to urban planning, civic projects, and the creation of public space. What shapes new buildings will take in the next decade isn't yet clear, but fresh visions are beginning to emerge from the downturn. "It's like a forced diet," says Rob Rogers, a partner at Rogers Marvel in New York. "There's a certain healthiness when the profession has to cut back, regrow, and reimagine what it is we're all supposed to do--which is creative problem solving."

Projects begun before the recession were among the first to feel the shift. New York's Whitney Museum wanted Renzo Piano to slenderize his design for a downtown expansion to save costs, and the Tate Modern in London asked Herzog & de Meuron to simplify the scheme for its new addition by excising complex glass protrusions. Other new projects are already reflecting a slimmed-down sensibility. Jerusalem's Israel Museum, scheduled to reopen in July, has been renovated and expanded to enhance the experience for visitors, not overload their senses. Designed by James Carpenter of New York, the scheme thoughtfully reorganizes an existing complex, with three serene new glass pavilions for amenities, and a cool, daylit passageway to lead people through a garden to the renovated museum.

Some global design stars are pursuing a similarly quiet agenda. Piano just unveiled a design for an adjunct building to the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas: the understated elegance of his structure defers beautifully to the modern classicism of the original museum by Louis Kahn. The Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas of OMA, always adept at reading the zeitgeist, is promoting the virtues of the box. He points to the boxy new Wyly Theatre he designed in Dallas, where the spirit of experimentation was unleashed not on the building's shape but on the cutting-edge theatrical apparatus inside. "No one is really regretting the building's straightforward form," he says.

Patrons themselves are shunning iconic architecture. The Cincinnati Art Museum, for example--in a city that already has one knockout iconic arts center by Zaha Hadid--recently put on hold its plans for an addition by the hip Rotterdam office Neutelings Riedijk. The Berkeley Art Museum in California canceled a stunning design for a new building by Japanese architect Toyo Ito after failing to raise enough money. …

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