In a building market dominated by bland, inoffensive designs that may as well have rolled off an identikit production line, there is an important role to be played by the elite group of global architects who have a genuine architectural vision to share. Far from blending into the background, the likes of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel create works that command attention and provoke reaction, becoming stars of the field in the process.
The reputations of these ‘starchitects’ has, over the years, been increasingly commoditised, with the world’s premier cities competing to persuade the hottest talent to lend their ideas – and, just as importantly, their names – to flagship design-build projects.
"Politicians and developers [are] seeking to position their metropolis or their project in the global economy by hiring a famous architect who has attracted attention to another city," Prince’s Foundation special advisor, Hank Dittmar told Building Design in August 2013. "The result is a succession of cities becoming architectural trophy rooms with every city collecting its own Hadid, Nouvel, Eisenman or Rogers."
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"The name of an architectural star becomes a trusted brand," wrote Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher in an April 2015 blog post that attacked critics for "dismissive" attitudes towards famous architects. "It serves as a substitute for an in-depth analysis, evaluation and testing of the product. The evaluation of a large new complex building is too difficult, especially under the contemporary condition of permanent innovation. The star-system offers an alternative."
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Nevertheless, hiring a big name is no guarantee of a wholly successful outcome. Of course, subjective reactions to the built environment ensure that no project, no matter how illustrious its designer, will escape criticism entirely. But there are cases in which the employment of a ‘starchitect’ has attracted particularly strong or widespread condemnation.
There is a laundry list of reasons that help explain architectural misfires by the industry’s best and brightest – often a lack of forethought by city authorities that, as Schumacher implied, might have substituted proper scrutiny for the simplicity of a trusted name. After all, acclaimed architects have made their name with a signature aesthetic that, if applied haphazardly or half-heartedly, tends to stand out like a dropped stitch on the tapestry of a city. The case studies below highlight examples of when a particular famous architect was arguably the wrong choice for a high-profile project.
LA River redevelopment, Los Angeles (Frank Gehry)
One of the best-known names in architecture, Frank Gehry’s distinctively sinuous designs have inspired admiration and intense debate in equal measure for more than four decades. The 86-year-old architect is also an assertive and sometimes combative personality, stating at a Spanish press conference in 2014 that "98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit."
It wasn’t Gehry’s mouth that got him into trouble recently, however. The surprise revelation in August 2015 that he will be creating a new masterplan for the long-gestating redevelopment of the LA River ruffled feathers on a number of levels. The crux of the issue is that a masterplan by engineering firm Tetra Tech and three landscape architecture firms already exists for the scheme and was approved in 2007, informing the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Alternative 20 plan to improve an 11-mile stretch of the much-maligned concrete canal system, which is currently being considered by Congress.
It appears Gehry’s name allowed him to jump the queue on the LA River project, but critics argue that his commissioning has lacked transparency and public input, and threatens the Alternative 20 plan before Congress. Landscape architects have also raised concerns that Gehry’s lack of experience in landscape design makes him an odd choice for the project.
"Architects such as Frank Gehry can certainly be valuable in this process, but even he admitted he isn’t ‘a landscape guy’ when Mayor Eric Garcetti compared him to famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted," wrote Duane Border, landscape architect and president-elect of the Southern California chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, in an August blog. "The Los Angeles River deserves the attention of landscape architects who have experience analyzing and then creating visions for regionally-scaled landscape systems. This kind of experience is needed to build on the work of the 11-mile Alternative 20 plan to address the river’s full 51-mile stretch."
National Stadium, Tokyo (Zaha Hadid)
On the other side of the coin, Iraqi-British architect, and recent recipient of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, Zaha Hadid was, arguably, a suitable choice when in 2012 her firm won the competition to design a new National Stadium to host events at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, having already designed one of the stadiums for the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar.
Japanese architects did not agree. Hadid’s curvaceous design, which had already been scaled back in size, attracted steady criticism over its $2bn cost and its aesthetic dimensions, which local designers likened to a bike helmet or, as prominent architect Arata Isozaki memorably put it in an open letter to the Japan Sports Council, "a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so it can swim away".
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Hadid struck back at her critics, labelling them "hypocrites" and their criticism "embarrassing". The star architect perhaps revealed a measure of professional hubris when told Dezeen in 2014: "The fact that they lost is their problem; they lost the competition."
In the end, the government scrapped Hadid’s scheme in summer 2015, primarily over concerns about the stadium’s cost. The team that takes over the project will have a much narrower window to complete the stadium by 2020, having already blown the deadline to complete in time to host the finals of the rugby World Cup in 2019.
20 Fenchurch Street, London (Rafael Viñoly)
It’s no surprise that bold designs that are a result of a singular vision rarely receive unanimous acclaim. Famous architects are easy targets for often-unfair accusations of self-aggrandising designs that alienate the people who have to live with the resulting structures. But for the most part, divisive designs by the industry’s visionaries have as many champions as detractors.
That balance is severely skewed to the negative in the case of the Rafael Viñoly-designed tower at 20 Fenchurch Street in London, commonly known as the Walkie Talkie for its unusual shape. The New York-based Uruguayan architect has won plaudits over the years for stunning and popular works such as the Tokyo International Forum, but the Walkie Talkie, completed in April 2014, proved a knock to his reputation as well as London’s silhouette.
Beyond the building’s well-publicised engineering issues that have emerged – including powerful downdraughts and melting the components of nearby parked cars with concentrated sunbeams reflected off the skyscraper’s concave façade – it’s the Walkie Talkie’s look and its awkward relationship with its surroundings that have really riled its many critics. Even Viñoly himself has since admitted that his firm "made a lot of mistakes with this building".
The commercial tower, with its swollen proportions and almost cartoonish impact on the London skyline, recently had the dubious honour of winning Building Design magazine’s Carbuncle Cup for the UK’s ugliest building of the year. Building Design’s architecture critic Ike Ijeh, one of the cup’s judges, described it as "a gratuitous glass gargoyle graffitied on to the skyline of London", while one of the magazine’s readers declared: "I now have a new personal goal: to live long enough to see this building demolished."