April 22, 2012


Monumental Egos : "Starchitects" like Frank Gehry do not build for people -- they build to shock. (Roger Scruton, April 2012, American Spectator)

Gehry belongs to a small and exclusive club of "starchitects," who specialize in designing buildings that stand out from their surroundings, so as to shock the passerby and become causes célèbres. They thrive on controversy, since it enables them to posture as original artists in a world of ignorant philistines. And their contempt for ordinary opinion is amplified by all attempts to prevent them from achieving their primary purpose, which is to scatter our cities with blemishes that bear their unmistakable trademark. Most of these starchitects--Daniel Libeskind, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas--have equipped themselves with a store of pretentious gobbledygook, with which to explain their genius to those who are otherwise unable to perceive it. And when people are spending public money they will be easily influenced by gobbledygook that flatters them into believing that they are spending it on some original and world-changing masterpiece.

The most important feature of a Gehry "masterpiece," like the absurdly costly Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, is that it "challenges" the surrounding order. Gehry does not build for people, but sculpts a space for his own expressive ends. You see this clearly in his Stata Center at MIT, a building that takes the old ideas of wall and window and holds them up to ridicule, to create a kind of collapsed caricature of a building, which is already springing leaks and cracking at the joints. In a striking monograph, Architecture of the Absurd, John Silber, former president of Boston University, details all the faults of the building, including its enormous cost overrun, and the expense of maintaining it.

But by far the most telling criticism is one that can be leveled at all the starchitects, who adopt the same a priori approach to construction as Gehry, and also the same self-image of themselves as revolutionary geniuses. Gehry decided that, since the Stata building was to house the high-powered researchers that MIT collects, and bring them together in a single space, he should design an interior that encouraged them to interact, to share their ideas, to amplify each other's creativity by throwing concepts like footballs from room to room. So he got rid of inner walls, made all boundaries transparent, opened everything out in spaces that are made stark and bleak by the childish supermarket colors that shout from the open corridors.

This kind of a priori thinking, by an architect who has never troubled to observe another member of his species, recalls Le Corbusier's plan for a hospital in Venice, in which there would be no windows, and all doors would open inward, since this would further the utter tranquility from which (according to the architect) convalescence springs. In fact researchers need walls, privacy, solitude if they are ever to produce the ideas that they can then bounce off their colleagues, just as invalids need light, air, and a view of the life outside, if ever they are to be motivated to get better. The Stata Center therefore fulfils no function as well as its primary one, which is to draw attention to the person who created it.

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Posted by at April 22, 2012 10:32 AM

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