The Death of Starchitecture

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Click the image to view NEWSWEEK's gallery Architecture: The End of Excess? Rafa Rivas / AFP-Getty Images

In The Bilbao Effect, a minor satire that played off-Broadway in New York this spring, a world-famous architect named Erhardt Shlaminger is caught in a scandal when his design for a wildly cutting-edge building supposedly drives a woman to suicide. Shlaminger, sporting a flamboyant blue scarf and a pretentious accent, is a sendup of a contemporary starchitect. In the best scene, a model of his offending building is carried onstage: a jumble of pointed metal and sharply angled plastic, it looks, says one character, “like a toaster on steroids.” But in comedy, as in life, timing is everything. The trend that the play meant to skewer—dubbed “the Bilbao Effect” after the huge success of Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain—is just about over. The phenomenon of using iconic architecture to promote a city, an institution, or a real-estate development was a product of the economic boom that began in the late 1990s and ended with the recession in 2008.

As Western economies begin to recover, extravagant, eye-popping architecture is giving way to a subtler new aesthetic. In the U.S. and Europe, architectural values are shifting from can-you-top-this designs toward more efficient, functional building. Innovation and experimentation are increasingly directed at sustainability and new technology. For a younger generation of architects in particular, “the spectacle building is kind of a dinosaur,” says Rosalie Genevro, director of the Architectural League in New York. Architects, too, are engaging more in collaboration as they turn their attention to urban planning, civic projects, and the creation of public space. What shapes new buildings will take in the next decade isn’t yet clear, but fresh visions are beginning to emerge from the downturn. “It’s like a forced diet,” says Rob Rogers, a partner at Rogers Marvel in New York. “There’s a certain healthiness when the profession has to cut back, regrow, and reimagine what it is we’re all supposed to do—which is creative problem solving.”

Projects begun before the recession were among the first to feel the shift. New York’s Whitney Museum wanted Renzo Piano to slenderize his design for a downtown expansion to save costs, and the Tate Modern in London asked Herzog & de Meuron to simplify the scheme for its new addition by excising complex glass protrusions. Other new projects are already reflecting a slimmed-down sensibility. Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, scheduled to reopen in July, has been renovated and expanded to enhance the experience for visitors, not overload their senses. Designed by James Carpenter of New York, the scheme thoughtfully reorganizes an existing complex, with three serene new glass pavilions for amenities, and a cool, daylit passageway to lead people through a garden to the renovated museum.

Some global design stars are pursuing a similarly quiet agenda. Piano just unveiled a design for an adjunct building to the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas: the understated elegance of his structure defers beautifully to the modern classicism of the original museum by Louis Kahn. The Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas of OMA, always adept at reading the zeitgeist, is promoting the virtues of the box. He points to the boxy new Wyly Theatre he designed in Dallas, where the spirit of experimentation was unleashed not on the building’s shape but on the cutting-edge theatrical apparatus inside. “No one is really regretting the building’s straightforward form,” he says.

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Patrons themselves are shunning iconic architecture. The Cincinnati Art Museum, for example—in a city that already has one knockout iconic arts center by Zaha Hadid—recently put on hold its plans for an addition by the hip Rotterdam office Neutelings Riedijk. The Berkeley Art Museum in California canceled a stunning design for a new building by Japanese architect Toyo Ito after failing to raise enough money. Instead the museum will retrofit an old printing plant for new gallery space. And while global events like the Olympics often have been prime venues for showcasing dazzling architecture, the relatively modest 2012 Games in London will feature only one facility by an international star: Hadid’s Aquatics Center, which features a fantastic roof that undulates like the swells of the ocean. Many of the structures for the Games will be temporary and pragmatic. But, notes Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics and design adviser to the Olympics site, the 19th century was a parsimonious era as well—and yet produced all that awesome engineering: the great bridges, the fantastic train stations. “It’s a matter of doing more for less,” he says, “of fit for purpose.”

What’s brilliant about the 2012 plans is that the British government is sinking £9.3 billion into the future, not just into two weeks of showing off for a global TV audience. When the Games are over, thousands of people living in a wretchedly poor part of East London will get to enjoy the infrastructure, a park, public amenities, and new housing. Such revamping of cities is a task now engaging many top architects. Unburdened by the demands of developers to come up with quirky glass towers full of overpriced apartments, architects are becoming involved in designing master plans for urban neighborhoods. French architect Dominique Perrault has designed a second city center for Sofia, Bulgaria; a new district around a train station in Locarno, Switzerland; and a cultural center in an old quarry in Salerno, Italy. Yes, these urban schemes include ambitious architectural projects, but when the economy is shaky, planning can jump-start the creative work while postponing the expense of construction. However, Koolhaas, who’s working on a number of master plans, believes that clients are focusing on urban planning “not just for economic reasons but because it’s what they should really do. Planning is the ideal form of investment.” It’s a process that takes into account social, economic, and political factors: geography, transportation, public space.

Growing concern with the environment is also motivating architects to engage on a macro level. Looking further into the future, the Museum of Modern Art in New York decided to take advantage of young architects with time on their hands and commissioned five teams to design plans to contend with the rising seas threatening to flood New York City’s shoreline. As those plans, now on exhibit at MoMA, make clear, designing almost anything bigger than a birdhouse takes a village. Collaboration is one of the strongest forces emerging in contemporary design culture, especially for the younger generation; in MoMA’s show Rising Currents, teams such as ARO and dlandstudio brought together architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and engineers to come up with design solutions for a future lower Manhattan under water. “With the blurring of the boundaries among disciplines, you’re recognizing that you don’t solve the problem with an object building,” says Burdett. “Everything belongs to a context in the city.”

That notion of collectivity strikes at the heart of the lone heroic starchitect. Last month, when the Pritzker Architecture Prize was awarded to Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Tokyo firm SANAA, Sejima acknowledged the indispensable contribution of the engineering firm Sasaki and Partners in creating their seemingly lighter-than-air designs. Such extraordinary buildings as the just-opened Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland—a vast one-story structure with a gently rolling floor plate, like a hilly interior landscape—would be an impossible illusion without a great engineer. If the Pritzker Prize still anoints starchitects, the increasingly important Aga Khan Award for Architecture is the anti-icon honor. Its finalist projects this year, many tucked away in remote corners of the Muslim world, include a school in China and a textile factory in Turkey.

Extravagant architecture isn’t going away entirely. Many of Asia’s economies are still booming, and China in particular hungers for spectacle architecture—even as the country’s most iconic structure, the Bird’s Nest stadium from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, suffers an identity crisis: its vast sporting space has been home to an array of cheesy retail stalls. In Abu Dhabi and Qatar, major cultural projects, with exuberant designs by Gehry, Hadid, and Jean Nouvel, remain on track, at least for now. And on the West Coast, two contemporary-art museums—one devoted to the collection of Eli Broad in Los Angeles, the other an extension of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to house the collection of Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher—have invited some of the usual suspects to compete for their designs. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Adjaye Associates, Snøhetta, and Foster + Partners are up for the SFMOMA job, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro leads a list of six firms for the L.A. museum. But the winning architects are likely to propose schemes that are sensitive to their urban habitat and deferential to the art.

The world’s most inventive starchitects will continue to create spectacular buildings. It’s not easy to dismiss the boom years and the brash experimentation they fostered. “I don’t think we will see in our lifetime another era where both private and public clients are so willing to engage in architectural innovation,” says Alejandro Zaera-Polo of the firm Foreign Office in London, a bit wistfully. Some of the architecture that resulted—Gehry’s Disney Hall in L.A., Koolhaas’s Seattle Library, to name just two—was wonderful. Yet innovation as mere style is nothing to prize; no one is going to miss the second-rate excesses of the era. Pointlessly pointy architecture is so over. And we can hope that what comes next will be thoughtful design that responsibly reflects the complexities of contemporary life.

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