Who Is Using Who? The Architect-Patron Fame Game
Kim Kardashian has hired legendary architect Tadao Ando to design her home in Palm Springs, California. As the breathless headline from the Daily Mirror gushed: “Kim Kardashian reveals she’s been working on a ‘dream project’ with Japanese architect Tadao Ando for the past TWO YEARS as she shares digital mockup of massive Palm Springs fortress.” Kardashian is legendary, too, but for a body type and visage that exploit the cheap thrills and instant gratification of social media. A great architect is used by a media creation to promote herself beyond her sex appeal. This relationship is just the latest example of stars using stars to create PR magic for both designer and patron.
Michelangelo and Pope Julius II created the Sistine Chapel in 1508. Two public figures used each other to create great art, transforming power into the culturally iconic. Architecture may be a trade and a craft, but it’s taught and recognized as an art. The other fine arts need far less time and money for the artist to realize their art: patrons are necessary to create buildings. Poets, writers, painters, dancers, and sculptors need a break, but they do not need patrons who provide land, huge budgets, and have the patience, wealth, and confidence to risk building with an architect.
The co-mingling of celebrity status, between the famous client and famous designer, has a long history. It created a magazine behemoth: Architectural Digest was the People of design for four decades. When the 1% work for the 1%, their values are reinforced and more than buildings result. The relentlessly self-promoting Frank Lloyd Wright had a slew of rich and famous clients trying to validate their fame by patronizing the “Great Architect.” Captain of industry Frank Johnson made high-profile buildings with Wright (Wingspread, the Johnson Wax Building). Darwin D. Martin and Wright made an incredible house and the Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York. The Pittsburgh mogul Edgar Kaufman changed the perception of architecture with Fallingwater, choosing Wright as his signature architect.
But fame in architecture is not just a collaboration. It can be produced by the relationship between the client’s vision and the selected designer. In the 1930s, a relatively unknown German architect leapt at the fame offered to him by devoting his life to his famous patron. Albert Speer lost all perspective beyond making “important” buildings for Adolph Hitler. Modern Master Giuseppe Terragni found his muse in Benito Mussolini, and after his death received academic veneration during architectural culture’s love affair with his disciple Aldo Rossi 40 years ago.
The midcentury Philadelphia architect Frank Kling is said to have redefined Virtuvius’ Three Rules of Architecture: from “Firmness, Commodity, and Delight” to “Get the job, Get the job, Get the job.” Without building, architects cannot display the brilliance and expertise that validates their hire, but getting the chance to build anything is problematic if you don’t have a portfolio of work. Beyond the joy of simply building something, projects for the famous offer the recognition and performance that architects crave.
I say this after 40 years of designing buildings for people, including a U.S. senator, a network television news anchor, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and an ambassador or two. But the nature of fame has changed. Celebrity has become viral. Now it seems that anyone with a viable internet connection and a knack for clickable content can spend virtually no money and still have millions of “followers.” Once upon a time, there were gatekeepers of fame. Brokers of publicity promoted people in the arts, politics, culture, either because they were hired by those people, or those kingmakers were the publishers, institutions, and editors who benefited from the fame that they created. Perceived power is still power.
Throughout the last two centuries, architects have developed cults of personality like other fine artists. Whether intended or not, creatives project a “brand” to the world over time. Richard Meier designed eyewear and Michael Graves, kettles. But the allure of Phillip Johnson as being joined at the hip of the rich and famous is changing. The internet world lives in imagery and virtue signaling. Cool is not what an editor says or an exhibit reveals. On the internet, fame flows from what gets clicks, likes, and shares.
Virtue signaling is as important as sex appeal in social media. Celebrity now follows a “correct” morality, not just an aesthetic vitality. So when the actor Brad Pitt championed Make It Right in New Orleans, to build homes for those who lost them in Hurricane Katrina, he took his own fame and married it to starchitects like David Adjaye, Frank Gehry, and Thom Mayne. Fame doubled down on fame. Celebrities like Rihanna had concerts, and Emeril Legassi had banquet fundraisers, and the press, predictably, swooned.
The spectacular failure of Make It Right is just the flipside of fame: schadenfreude. The joy of the mighty failing has incredible currency in the internet world of moral superiority and flaming. Whether it was Richard Neutra or, later, Philip Johnson working with then–star televangelist Robert Schuller, Garden Grove Church used starchitects to validate its relevance. It went bankrupt in 2011, and Schuller died in 2015. The building’s resurrection is now in the hands of the Catholic Church, appropriately covered by Architectural Digest. So the image of Tadao Ando, quietly being a genius for Kim Kardashian, was no surprise, just another attempt at vacuous celebrity getting validated by patronage. And I am sure that the check for his fee has cleared.
Featured image via Kim Kardashian’s Instagram page.