Posted: by

I loathe the term starchitect. All too frequently it’s employed to broadly dismiss any form of new architecture by painting architects (not just the good ones) as a ego-driven prima donnas. So you can imagine my dismay when Frank Gehry, the starchitect’s starchitect, opened his mouth and gave critics plenty of fodder by declaring that sustainability and the LEED rating system were “bogus” and “political.”

On the one hand he has a point. LEED is fraught with shortcomings. The fact that it gives equal weight to bicycle storage, which encourages environmentally responsible behavior, and heat island reduction, which actually provides an environmental benefit, is nutty. LEED-rated buildings in transit-inaccessible locations are generally less environmentally friendly than typical construction in dense, urban areas. Furthermore, all signs point to the most important aspects of sustainability becoming law, either at the federal level through cap-and-trade (or whatever it’s called) legislation, or local zoning and land-use requirements.

However, Susan Szenasy, editor of the design magazine Metropolis, points out a disconcerting trend among the discipline’s most prominent professionals. Architects were once stalwarts of progressive and socially-responsible movements. The modernist movement was in part an attempt, somewhat misapplied, to create better, more affordable buildings by harnessing industrial production power and the Fordist mass-production mentality. Today, that type of forward-thinking seems to be lost to more esoteric musings on the city in the era of globalization or the role of parametric modeling in computer aided design (I doubt most practitioners could give you a straight-faced explanation of the latter).

Szenasy notes that twenty years ago, much like today, leading architects were nowhere to be found when ADA guidelines were under consideration.

“While architects held meetings about the legal implications of the ADA, none of their anointed “leaders” came out to cheer them on. No Gehry or Meier identified the ADA as presenting an important design problem. And so in the ensuing years, as insensitive interpretations of the law grew in number— from obscure way-finding to awkward ramps—I kept wondering, How would the world look and feel if the stars of architecture decided to stand up for the good of humanity?”

For Gehry, the real question is why he bothered to open his mouth? His ideas on architecture, namely the building as an inhabitable piece of sculpture, have always been less compelling than his talent for turning napkin scribbles into lucrative artworks. And for someone who complained that high cost of green buildings doesn’t pay back over a building’s lifetime, you have to ask, when has a Gehry building ever paid for itself? Certainly, the numerous leak-prone monuments to deconstructivism he’s been sued for aren’t doing his clients any financial favors.

Gehry’s buildings have always been jewels in the landscape, and as a result have been treated differently than your typical office building. That’s fine. Iconic buildings have a specific role in our urban environment and more leeway to make trade-offs between efficiency, performance, and a higher architectural ambition.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Firms like Behnisch Arkitecken, and Morphosis have managed to adopt LEED and sustainability as central tenets of their practices while continuing to push the formal limits of architecture. It’s reasonable to assume that the next generation of designers, spoon-fed sustainability from birth, will continue to push that agenda forward. As they do, one can only hope that our buildings and built environment improve, and Mr. Gehry’s star quietly fades away.

5 Responses to “Frank Gehry, You Grump”

  1. GK

    That architects that practice at that level are egocentric prima donnas is indisputable–work for one or have one work for you and you will be hard pressed to uncover the contrary. Wish that it were different, but it ain’t so.

    As for LEED, one needs to distinguish between the merits of green generally and an organization that has set itself up as a steward to the construction component of the movement. Gehry, Behnisch, and Morphosis all have it right. On the one hand it is a “racket” and on the other it creates a profitable niche.

    Having created several LEED (including Gold) buildings to date, I have seen the sausage being made and while you might like the green links on your plate, you don’t want to know how they got there.

    Like many organizations, including the AIA, selflessly promoting your agenda also means selfishly guarding your turf and all that entails.

    Also is it possible to conjure a situation where agendas on the side of angles: green, ADA, historic preservation, education could be at odds with each other? Of course it is. Which should prevail?

    Perhaps that is the conversation architects should have.

  2. anthony pins

    To clarify, my problem with “starchitect” isn’t that it identifies a common set of traits among celebrated architects (although I think you’d be hard pressed to find people operating at the highest levels of any discipline who were immune to having an ego), it’s that the term is used broadly to describe anyone that puts ink to vellum. In Montgomery County, I think it would be a stretch to describe even the most decorated firms in the realm of starchitecture. But that hasn’t prevented the criticism from being levied.

    Starchitecture seems to have become a new attack label invoked by those in opposition to a project on the very grounds of its existence, not what it looks like (or that the architect has a big ego). It’s not all that different from the way “socialist,” “radical,” and “unpatriotic” are mindlessly thrown about in national politics.

    While I’m not sympathetic to the clumsiness of LEED, it would seem to be only one of the many unsavory aspects of the profession. Gehry, a man who spent the first 30 years of his career designing shopping malls, could have used his prominence to call for strengthening LEED or for designers to pursue a green agenda outside the institutional framework. Doing so, however, would require he answer for his own lack of environmental initiative. Instead, by dismissing LEED he seems more in line with people who deny the existence of climate change and the sustainability imperative. The green sausage may not be kosher, but it’s better than no sausage at all. It’s too bad Gehry couldn’t be the mashgiach.

    GK – I suspect that you’re right about the conflicts and tradeoffs between related issues. However, those would seem to arise at the project level, and their responses would be tailored to the site and programmatic needs. How could those tradeoffs be discussed removed from that context?

  3. CNA jobs

    Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

  4. GK

    The tradeoffs could never be adequately judged outside of context–it would just be hypothetical.

    As for Montgomery County, forget about stretching, you can’t leap, jump or fly and get anywhere close to ascribing starchitect to anybody here or in the DC region.

    One final note: aren’t stachitects just part of the larger phenomenon of celebrity in entertainment, athletics, even academia. Money and fame accrue far more disproportionately now.

  5. Thayer-D

    I think the term starchitect isn’t so much about how egotistical an architects is or whether their project exists as much as the attitude their work embodies towards the public. When Gehry does titanium panels on his Disney Opera House and the neighbors fry because of the reflected sun, or when buildings turn their backs to the street with blank walls, the shorthand for better or worse has become starchitect. One who dosen’t give a poop about the public’s interaction with a building vs. how well it will photograph in the I’m too cool for you magazine world. That being said, there are instances (buiding sites) that seem to call out for “iconic” buildings as you noted. As for people who genuinely don’t like a project because it exists, I think they are called nimby’s.