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Where Are the Architectural Masterpieces?

Shortly after the millennium, Vanity Fair, a magazine that purports to follow every kind of cultural milestone, asked a select group of 52 “experts” to pick the five best buildings since 1980. The selections were bizarre; almost every building was by one of the chosen architects, which made up the vast majority of those asked for their picks. Few choices received more than five votes. If you were dead, your buildings were forgotten. If you were labeled a Postmodernist—as were Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, James Stirling, Denise Scott Brown, and Michael Graves—you were treated like a leper. A few jurors remembered that Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany, was hailed as one of the century’s masterpieces following its completion in 1984. It received fewer votes than the Seattle Public Library, by Rem Koolhaas, the darling of academic theorists and Prada fashionistas. 

James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany, 1984, via Wikipedia.


Women in architecture fared little better. Of the three who made the list—Maya Lin, Elizabeth Diller, and Zaha Hadid—only Hadid had more than one building mentioned. Of the handful of architectural critics cited, Paul Goldberger picked five popular choices, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial among them. Two critics refused to name a single example. One chose only a modest school in Africa, thumbing his nose at the whole affair. Even the reporter writing for the magazine admitted that the survey’s respondents could agree on only one obvious masterpiece: the Guggenheim Bilbao. 

If the last two decades of the 20th century produced very few buildings that experts thought worthy of the title “masterwork,” how have we fared since then? Forty years have elapsed since Ronald Reagan’s epochal election as president in 1980, a moment that many historians now regard as a shift in the economic, social, and cultural forces shaping our lives as humans, as well as other inhabitants of this small planet. Has the art of architecture responded to this shift with memorable, evocative, and lasting monuments to the new worldview?

Without a doubt, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, represented a cultural moment that came to define the ambitions of many architects since its completion in 1998: build a lavish, provocative, and highly visible cultural institution (preferably an art museum), tout its innovations in publications, and you will have an international career. Indeed, so many gaudy art museums have appeared since 2000 across the globe that the building type has become the white elephant of peak-oil capitalist excess. Today’s young Turks have a totem to hate and avoid. Established designers made the best of the boom in endowed museum makeovers and music venues like opera houses, all catering to the wealthiest 1%. But ultimately, few art institutions had the taste and foresight to bet on truly remarkable new facilities. And those that did found their architects unable to provide compelling designs that resonated with an increasingly jaded public. 

Steven Holl’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, 2014, via Wikipedia.


The 2001 attack on the World Trade Center signaled another social and cultural cataclysm that resounded among architects and engineers: tall buildings were clearly monuments to capitalism and imperialism, and as such would be targeted by terrorists if left unprotected. Moreover, building higher meant flouting commonsense standards of economy and safety. Firms that made their names by doing so—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, for instance—were no longer assured of the prestige of creating technological and formal icons that were previously almost universally esteemed by the public. But the market simply demanded taller skyscrapers.

Another mitigating factor that discouraged the creation of notable buildings was the Great Recession of 2008. Hobbling the design professions and putting many large projects on hold, the economic crash recast the building industry as just one facet of a technocratic juggernaut that would reshape cities and regions on a scale scarcely imagined a half-century ago. Hundreds of midsize architectural firms disappeared within five years of the stock market crash, and with them the kind of creative energy that has traditionally brought trend-setting ideas to the fore. Without emerging masters, there can’t be masterpieces.

Then there was the erosion of the architect’s cultural position as both artist and professional. Daniel Liebeskind’s star rose and sank with the World Trade Center competition. Though he may well have been the victim of an incompetent group of politicians, developers, and bureaucrats with competing agendas, his overhyped design for the site left a tarnished reputation fewer opportunities to build on a grand scale. Norman Foster’s egomaniacal overreach, and astounding wealth, resulted in a decline in professional respect, though no shortage of projects after 2000. Richard Meier was finally caught in the net of “me too” investigations, though he retained several titles and awards after his sins were exposed. 

Peter Zumthor appeared to be one architect capable of giving voice to the century’s shifting priorities: climate change, minimalist aesthetics, and placemaking. Unfortunately, a scandal surrounding his breakout work, the Terme at Vals (1999), near his home in Switzerland, and another controversy swirling around the construction of the Los Angeles Museum of Art slowed his career and left him with few chances to build. Several other Pritzker laureates, such as Hangzhou’s Wang Shu and his wife Lu Wenyu, have challenged Western notions of progress and building for fame or fortune. They remain tied to their locale and region and do not take projects from wealthy patrons abroad, something Zumthor might have considered before sloshing around in the Southern California mud. 

Several acknowledged masters in the twilight of their careers—Rafael Moneo, Renzo Piano, and Alvaro Siza among them—continue to build prolifically, but they have likely exhausted their creative visions by this point. Like most artists, architects tend to have one or two great ideas that they refine and repeat as patrons demand “signature” works. Only rarely do they produce daring work in the last years of their careers.

Indeed, it is curious that a new generation of form-givers and cultural heroes did not emerge in the early years of this century, perhaps due to the events discussed here, but perhaps because “masters” of our most public art chose not to follow the examples of their predecessors. The first problem, of course is the word itself. 

On the one hand, mastery of a craft once carried the prestige that societies bestowed on experts who made things. On the other, in a nation cursed by the stigma of slavery and racial bias, the word “master” can never shed its horrible stain. Yale University chose to remove the title from its college system a few years ago, despite the warm feelings that students had toward the august professors who lived among them, whatever their pronoun. 

Groups like The Architecture Lobby have argued that architects working in groups are laborers that deserve all the rights, and limited authorship, that an egalitarian workplace requires. Some offices in the U.S., and more abroad, have adopted an “employee ownership” model for their businesses, perhaps spurred by Silicon Valley businesses. This organizational model more closely follows the social science research that suggests people gain more confidence and creativity when given some ownership over the products of their labor. The Arts and Crafts Movement advocated such agency more than a century ago.

My own research suggests that the Romantic ideal of the architect/artist as a towering genius capable of inventing masterpieces out of his (seldom her) imagination was a myth not substantiated by modern scholarship. Leaders in the arts, as in other pursuits, seldom rise out of a desert; more often, they have benefited from the mentorship of older colleagues as well as peers. Great American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn were nurtured in highly creative environments among other talented designers before gaining their fame. 

Feminists have long argued that women work better in teams than men and tend to manage complex design projects brilliantly. Psychological research suggests that this is the case. More women graduate from architecture programs than men by a substantial margin—why don’t they rise as rapidly in medium-sized firms? I don’t think I really need to answer this question. 

Young architects who have found a place in online publications have generally preferred to leave their names off the masthead of their new firms. That choice was surely deliberate, though not every partner has demurred from sitting for interviews that emphasized their contributions to individual projects. SHoP Architects (seven partners appear in a group photo on the website) is one of the largest successful offices in the New York area, while the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) makes no bones about who runs the show among its several offices around the world. 

Generally, however, younger designers in various cultural centers have made it clear that they want to work with clients that solve environmental, social, and economic problems facing their regions and populations. Many of their most innovative projects are not museums, music venues, or civic centers. Rather, publications now regularly feature smaller projects such as kindergarten facilities, rural clinics, pocket parks, visitor centers for cultural heritage sites, and adaptive-reuse projects in forgotten urban buildings like factories, prisons, and warehouses. Though writers seem impressed by design innovations in these projects, few are touting them as iconic works of art that will enter the history books in coming decades. 

It is revealing that projects now entering the canon of game-changing designs were not designed by a single professional. The High Line was a public project that owed its main ideas not to Diller, Scofidio & Renfro (the architect) or James Corner Field Operations (the landscape architect), but to citizen advocates who convinced authorities to relinquish control of the elevated tracks and rights of way over several miles of lower Manhattan real estate. Designers have stepped aside from taking credit for the astounding popularity of this new urban park, as they should; a large group of New York leaders and citizen groups made it happen. Increasingly, the truly significant buildings and urban design schemes are assembled by teams of developers, civic leaders, architects, planners, and neighborhood groups. 

Among the trends in architecture chronicled here on Common Edge, collaborative practice, community centered planning, partnerships between university “laboratories” and public advocacy organizations, co-benefits, biophilic design, and other strategies suggest that relying on the creative genius of a single individual, no matter how gifted, is not the answer to the current spate of challenges confronting architects and planners. More than ever, design is a team activity, and outstanding ideas most often come from patient searching among highly trained staff who have formed bonds during their most creative years.

The High Line, designed by James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scifidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolfl, 2009. Photo by the author.


In fact, the prevailing view of mid-20th-century art curators, critics, and historians has given way to a more pluralistic, egalitarian, and socially grounded schema for assessing the true worth of new projects that will change the built environment for better or worse. Why must we bestow laurels on “artistic geniuses” who may or may not focus their creative energies on the enormous problems that threaten not only human well-being but the fate of the entire biosphere? If a new generation of architectural historians turns away from the valorization of individual architects, they may also discover new ways of bestowing value on the work of groups of men and women who are creating the milestones of a new history. Their books will have many more interesting stories to tell than the lives of a few white, male overachievers. 

Featured image: The High Line, photo by the author.


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