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February 19, 2018

The Fall of the Starchitect: Is the age of the celebrity architect finally ending?

While recent years have seen the idolisation of high-profile architects and ‘iconic’ buildings, new narratives around sustainable and ‘high-tech’ design are coming to the fore. Have we witnessed the end of the age of the starchitect? Patrick Kingsland asks Davide Ponzini, author of Starchitecture: Actors and Spectacles in the Global City, and Leslie Sklair, author of The Icon Project

By Patrick Kingsland

On 19 October last year, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao marked its twentieth anniversary. Perched on the banks of the Nervion River, the elaborately-shaped building with a glittering titanium façade helped make a global celebrity of its American architect, Frank Gehry, now 88.

To its proponents, it also helped put the rust-belt city in Spain’s Basque country firmly back on the map. Bilbao’s economy had been decimated by the decline of heavy industries, including steel, shipbuilding and machine engineering. Between 1975 and 1995, 60,000 manufacturing jobs were lost.

Soon after the museum opened, however, the town saw a massive 500% increase in tourism, with almost four million people visiting the Guggeinheim in its first three years. The museum – which displays contemporary and modern art – continues to attract around one million visitors per year, the vast majority from outside Bilbao.

This turn-around gave rise to a whole new theory of urban renewal known as the ‘Bilbao effect’. The idea was that investment in culture and ‘iconic architecture designed by celebrity architects, or ‘starchitects’, could transform the economic life of down-at-the-heels cities. The theory soon spawned an obsession with icons and starchitects around the world.

Legacy of architecture’s Bilbao effect

PQ: “There is no reason why we should believe the Bilbao effect works in terms of urban regeneration.”

Twenty years on, however, the legacy of this period divides opinion. Many critics have come to question the preoccupation of celebrity architects with shapes and exaggerated sculptures over more valuable metrics such as building efficiency, environmental performance and local context.

As a means of improving cities many now also believe the Bilbao effect – which Ghery himself described as “bullshit” in an interview with The Guardian newspaper – is profoundly flawed.

While the Guggenheim Museum tends to take the credit for Bilbao’s regeneration, “it was one piece of a larger master-plan and redevelopment,” says Davide Ponzini, author of Starchitecture: Actors and Spectacles in the Global City.

“There is no reason why we should believe the Bilbao effect works in terms of urban regeneration,” Ponzini adds. “These sorts of effects derive from more complex sets of investments and trends which cannot be done with one architectural project – no matter how beautiful or successful the building is.”

Among others investments in Bilbao often side-lined by the Bilbao effect narrative were improvements to the polluted Nervion River that allowed new buildings along its banks; a metro system designed by Norman Foster; an airport designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and the creation of new planning bodies – the Bilbao Metropoli-30 and Bilbao Ria 2000 – in the early 1990s.

The end of starchitecture?

PQ: “We have quite a systematic picture of what has been going on over the last 25 years. We can say these architects are certainly not coming to an end.”

Many believed the financial crisis and subsequent years of austerity would trigger the end of the era of ‘iconic’ architecture. Not only was there less funding available, but the public’s appetite for showy buildings seemed to have waned.

“It’s an architecture of excess, a consequence of there being too much money around,” the British architect David Chipperfield told Bloomberg in 2008. “At a time when people are worried about other things, those things become really irritating and probably less relevant.”

But starchitecture – most commonly associated with Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas – never went away and perhaps never will. Indeed, for Ponzini, some form of the phenomenon has existed for “centuries”.

“Aesthetically striking interventions by famous architects is nothing new,” he says. “The only thing to change has been the expectation that such projects could change the face of a city.”

With his research team, Ponzini has been closely monitoring the activities of starchitects and argues there is no indication the trend is ending.

“We look at where they work, what kind of work they do, the types of buildings they design and build,” he says. “We have quite a systematic picture of what has been going on over the last 25 years. We can say these architects are certainly not coming to an end.”

Seeking to expand their businesses and survive the financial crisis of 2007, Ponzini says the geographical footprint of starchitects has widened in recent years. Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island mega-development, for example, features buildings or plans by Foster + Partners, Jean Nouvel, the late Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry.

According to Leslie Sklair, author of The Icon Project, the urge to build iconic architecture is likely to persist for as long as what he calls “consumerist capitalism” does. In his book, Sklair argues that as capital has expanded into new territories, architects and real estate developers have acted as marketers, branding cities through their icons.

“The role of starchitects in the building and branding of cities has been very important,” Sklair says. “The stardust of celebrity architecture rubs off onto the cities that can afford them. In many cases architects play an active role in the business of capitalist globalisation. This is why the starchitects phenomenon is not going to disappear anytime soon.”

New architectural narratives

PQ: “Green architecture, the smart city and high-tech solutions are strong narratives these days.”

While the profile of celebrity architects is unlikely to diminish, Ponzini believes the narratives surrounding what they build has been evolving.

“Green architecture, the smart city and high-tech solutions are strong narratives these days,” he says. “The same architects and firms are starting to specialise in slightly different profiles, becoming known not only for the aesthetic contribution of one architect but the high-tech or sustainable solutions that they can apply.”

In the end, Ponzini argues that buildings should be judged on an individual basis, whether they are framed as an iconic, sustainable, or something else.

“The important issue is whether the narrative generates better effects,” he says. “For this we have to check project by project.”

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