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Architectural Kudzu

It was only a matter of time before someone picked up the cudgels on behalf of the “starchitects”—that new but already tired term for our celebrity architects—but it is surprising that it would be the New York Times’s architecture critic. Last Sunday, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote with great urgency in praise of starchitects, touting them not only for the audacity of their imagination but for their ability to work with gargantuan real estate developers. Why the Times would cheer the rise of the international starchitect, which is an aspect of globalization, is not entirely obvious. It may be a sufficient explanation that the phenomenon has been criticized by certain critics on the right, such as John Silber and me.

For Ouroussoff, the starchitect is not a shallow and ambitious showman but a seasoned master—someone who is likely to have paid his dues, often in academia, toiling for decades in obscurity to refine and distill his visionary ideas:

Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.

Ouroussoff dismisses the notion that the starchitect is a new phenomenon. After all, was not Bernini “a tireless self-promoter,” and should not our own “greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?”

The problem of starchitects, however, is not the shallowness of celebrity, as Ouroussoff’s schematic model suggests, but the danger of monoculture. We rightly lament the loss of ecological diversity in nature, as local ecosystems, overwhelmed by invasive species from outside, lose their fragile equilibrium. One thinks of Japanese kudzu, inundating the American southeast and driving out native species, or the way that American cactus has come to dominate the Mediterranean basin. But one can lose cultural diversity just as one loses ecological diversity, and already we see the warning signs of the emergence of an international architectural monoculture.

The city I know best, Philadelphia, once had a thriving and unusually vibrant local culture, and the very fact of its parochial oddness perversely made it intensely interesting to outsiders (giving the world such extraordinary figures as Frank Furness, Robert Venturi, and Louis Kahn). And until quite recently, its tallest and most important buildings were by Philadelphia architects. But now every item on the skyline is the work of one of the handful of prestigious national firms. They are not bad—Robert A. M. Stern’s forthcoming Comcast Tower looks as if it might be amusing—so much as generic; they might stand as easily in Houston or Seattle (and perhaps they do). I suspect this will prove to be the case in other cities as well.

In fact, Ouroussoff’s own roster of our “greatest architectural talents, ” Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Jean Nouvel—an American, a Dutch, and a French architect—inadvertently makes the same point. None is rooted in a specific city or even country, with distinctive local traditions and practices, instilling in each the strong sense of physical place that is the power of much of our greatest architecture. This is perhaps the first generation of architects since the late middle ages to practice with no sense of linguistic or national borders.

In the end, one can concede to Ouroussoff that some of our starchitects have produced works of “blazing originality,” even while wishing he were able to take a step backwards and see the phenomenon in its most spacious sense, as the rise of a lush but rather barren monoculture, the architectural equivalent of kudzu.


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