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Whatever Happened to “The Architects’ Architect”?

In the early 1990s, a composer friend introduced me to many different kinds of music and, because of him, I learned to appreciate Pat Metheny and Wynton Marsalis. I also learned to hear different things in Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Vangelis, Peter Gabriel, even Genesis. Years later I discovered that the list was fairly standard and that all these artists are known as musicians’ musicians—musicians largely appreciated by other musicians because their music is “about music.” There’s a similar phenomenon in architecture. There aren’t many architects’ architects but, as with musicians, it’s a fairly standard list and arrived at by much the same process of elimination.

 

Nobody Too Commercial

It used to be thought vulgar to make obscene amounts of money from art of any kind. It’s probably a hangover from van Gogh, but then artists like Andy Warhol moved the goalposts and made possible artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. It’s now okay for architects to do the same, but none of the large three-letter commercial practices such as SOM, HOK, OMA, ZHA or BIG can ever be an architects’ architect. They’re trying too hard to please.

 

Nobody Too Famous

Any dead architect mentioned in a history book or any living architect who is a household name is ineligible to be an architects’ architect, for architects typically take pride in their super-sensitivity to things others don’t give a second thought to. Architects’ architects are thus, by definition, not widely known to non-architects but not so unknown as to be totally obscure to other architects. (Decades ago when students used to have animated discussions on the relative merits of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, the architects’ architect of choice was Louis Kahn in America, and Alvar Aalto in Europe.) Being awarded a Pritzker Prize might have its consolations, but well-known architects can’t be architects’ architects. Peter Zumthor may at one time have been one, but he’s not one now.

 

Nobody Too Branded

A signature style is not something an architect has arrived at in order to solve similar problems in recognizably similar ways. It’s not even something that solves all problems in recognizably similar ways. It’s something that’s applied to problems selected so that they can be solved in recognizably similar ways. Any architect with a recognizable signature style is ineligible and, for this reason, Richard Meier, Shigeru Ban, Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry and, more recently, Alejandro Aravena can never be architects’ architects.

 

These three conditions exclude nearly all architects because the drivers for most architectural activity these days are to be commercial, well-known and identifiable. They go together. Using building aesthetics to succeed is part and parcel of being both commercial and famous. Being famous requires a recognizable product—it’s textbook branding. The list also includes:   

 

Nobody Who Proselytizes

Anyone concerned with anything but the design and construction of buildings is unlikely to be an “architects’ architect.” Removed from consideration, therefore, are all architects who teach, write, publish, lecture, tour, tweet, instagram or Facebook.

 

Nobody Who Engages the Media

The list narrows considerably. What about, say, architects such as Herzog and deMeuron? It’s not so easy to identify a Herzog & deMeuron building. They and Jean Nouvel were among the first architects to make the idea of solving different problems in visibly different ways into a brand. Saying one doesn’t have a signature style was taken to imply that client and project needs had priority. At the time this was refreshing and, commercially speaking, it’s never a bad thing to claim. More importantly, however, it worked to showcase their own creativity and versatility in dealing with diverse problems. Another beneficial side effect of the non-style style was that it rendered invisible the architects’ own standards by which success and failure are measured. Architects who play media games, in short, are ineligible to be architects’ architects.

 

We’re getting closer to identifying what makes an architects’ architect. We’ve in fact eliminated most architects and can see more clearly the elusive qualities of those scant few who are left.

 

Individuals

Architect’s architects tread their own path, as opposed to blazing trails forward and such. The architect as lone creative is part of the mythology of architecture. It’s Howard Roark before his luck changed. Being individual doesn’t necessarily mean solitary but, mostly it does.

 

Artistically Driven

Architects’ architects are those who appear to be “searching for something” and the search is admirable, even though nobody and perhaps least of all them knows what they’re “searching for.” Nonetheless, their buildings are easy for other architects to appreciate, as is their heroic search.

 

Attention to Detail

Architects’ architects take the time to get the little things right. There’s a consistency of thought, a thoroughness of execution and a sense everything was designed to be the way it is with nothing left to chance or for other employees or contractors to decide. All the same, there’s a fine line to be trod if this isn’t to become a marketing and branding ploy. Details that are too imaginative easily become ostentatious displays of skill. The excessive display of workmanship easily begets a cult of craft.

 

A Way With Materials

Architects’ architects select and use materials they see fit for purpose and this makes those materials photograph well, despite them often being used in their natural state.

 

These architects sound almost too good to be true, and they probably are. They represent an ideal that the rest of us would like to believe in. Ideals being ideals, they are impossible to live up to, but we still like to believe we can or, if we can’t, that someone somewhere can. Architects’ architects look like they’re living the life. They are the classic image of the architect ideal. Rosy as it is, this portrait needs some updating for there are some negatives associated with it.

 

Conventional

The buildings of architects’ architects tend to be understood in conventional ways and stimulate the usual pleasure centers. Oswald Ungers, for example, is not an architects’ architect. He was undoubtedly driven by some personal vision of perfection but his buildings are intellectually and physically unconventional. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea.

 

Irrelevant

The buildings of architects’ architects tend to reinforce the traditional agenda of architecture inasmuch as they convert the ownership of property and money into elegant fetishes. That Studio Mumbai make exquisite buildings is indisputable, but they’re definitely not buildings for India’s 99.9%. Studio Mumbai are architects’ architects. Lacaton & Vassal, however, see beauty in using cheap materials to accomplish a lot. They are not architects’ architects.

 

Elitist

Just as it is with music and musicians, the appreciation of some relatively obscure artist or the appreciation of some obscure aspect of a known one signifies belonging to a club. This isn’t a healthy thing, especially for a profession that prides itself on understanding what people need.

 

 

For what it’s worth, if you asked me who I thought was an architect’s architect, these three would be on my list:

 

Kazuo Shinohara (for all the houses, up to and including House in Uehara)

 

Jørn Utzon (for his entire output, except the Sydney Opera House)

 

Heinz Bienefeld (a recent discovery but, on the basis of what I’ve seen, faultless)

 

They’re all dead. The concept of the architects’ architect is probably dead, too, as it’s inconceivable now for any architect to not want to be commercial, famous and a recognizable brand. There’s an absence of hooks on which to hang the desire to believe.

 

The concept of the architects’ architect wasn’t perfect, but today what we have instead are self-aware media heroes. They’re conspicuously commercial, famous and branded—the antithesis of the architects’ architect. At the same time, all of the faults of the architect’s architect are now seen as positives. It would have been nice if conventional had been swapped for innovative, instead of novel; if irrelevant had been discarded for appropriate, instead of appealing; and if elitist had become inclusive, instead of populist. Media heroes reach out beyond the profession to talk to people who feel architecture isn’t talking to them. It’s a strong position. If only it were more about the buildings.

 

Featured image: Heinz Bienefeld, Haus Heinze-Manke, Dortmond, 1999

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