Tuesday, November 24, 2009

66. Seven ways to [verb] the Starchitect System

While doing research for one of my posts, I came across this very interesting synopsis of the starchitect system, made by a commenter on archinet. I thought it was a particularly insightful observation and could not resist posting it here.

Th starchitect system [a working and evolving description]:

  1. Architect makes a new form and discovers innovative way to build it
  2. The form-building gets press
  3. The architect becomes a pseudo-celebrity and the building becomes a "style"
  4. The architect starts using the same bag of (increasingly superficial) formal tricks in all consequent projects.
  5. The press (including architectural) give up really engaging criticism and if said architect does anything, it is celebrated as the coming of the messiah for a city, building type, etc...
  6. The public come to think of that "style" as architecture
  7. Lesser known architects follow the public's new tastes
  8. "Architecture" loses yet another battle.

While the above description is of one person's definition of the starchitecture system, below is a few responses on how to engage it (or apply a verb to it). The comments are from the same archinet thread reacting to Phillip Nobel's article in Metropolis Magazine "Anti-Starchitecture Chic". The original thread has a lot of interesting moments but all in all a chaotic stream of chatter that was difficult to follow. So I have tried to categorize them into some common themes and consensuses, while trying to keep the flavor and flow of the conversation. The assembled responses below has been selected not necessarily because I agree with them but because they are provocative and interesting within themselves. I enjoyed the candidness and [for better or for worse] it is an interesting demonstration of the logic of the collective.


-I am tired of media hype being the primary goal of starchitects. I rather have social and environmental guru's or genius's like Bill McDonough, Cameron Sinclair, or Ed Mazria getting all the attention, since they are creating the future for our planet. Rem, Gehry and their like won't save the earth or create a better society, but there are architects and designers who will. Lets celebrate them instead.

until then: 'fuck Frank Gehry' and while I'm at it, fuck Zaha

- completely agree, but I also feel like these "gurus" should be built into the code of the profession not the anomalies. The current system would not allow that

-Well, then fuck the system. The only truly credible course may be to reject the very idea of using yourself as a brand, (and) to work and work well...to me that's integrity.


-Isn’t it too easy to say that it doesn’t matter? For example Ghery can write contracts unlike most architects out there. The result is that you and I will never be able to compete with him in control of a project, etc... And at what point does the drive for fame (to be able to write contracts and make money like Ghery) turn into the superficial drive for the next cool form? When is it gimmicky?

I am using Ghery as an example I could say Zaha, Libeskind, OMA,

-Just to mix things up a little, we should also remember that since the Bilbao effect, the marketing and exposure that comes with a "starchitect" translates directly into $$$ to clients and the area. It goes beyond architect/starchitect worship...it's also public/event worship...also, I like to admire talented architects...both starchitects and local unknown architects...I think it's a natural process in our profession.

-The 'average person' is not the average client for a major architectural project. Most corporations, museums, libraries, etc are looking for star power these days.... Chipperfield and Holl's recent museum projects are good examples, as are projects at major universities (Vincent James at Tulane, Rem at IIT, Holl in Iowa) and most of the Asian projects that we hear about over here. You can bet that none of these clients is simply taking proposals and picking the ones they think will be best for the job. They're looking for recognition by association.

-...In general, I think we're painting this picture with a fairly broad brush, basically assuming that clients are lamely saying, "I want a Gehry" or "I want a Meier." On the contrary, most clients are quite savvy about the architect they are selecting. The client that chose Meier for the high-end condos in Chelsea chose him because he knew he could market that name to architecturally-conversant wealthy home buyers. Could he have done the same with Gehry? A museum that selects Holl, let's say Chiasma, knows that Holl will provide a design of a significant quality that will potentially complement the art displayed. moreover, let's be honest, the starchitect 99% of the time is flat-out a better designer than Joe Blow architect. It is more than a name these clients are buying, but clearly the name doesn't hurt either.


-We also must acknowledge that there's often a separation between the fame and the actual design being created by some of these architects we're alluding to.

What I'm getting at is that, for example, the first thing Karim Rashid (Asymptote's Hani Rashid's industrial designer brother) did after graduating school was to hire a PR manager. PR is the name of the game....

...I don't care either way for 'starchitects.' If somebody's doing good work, whether they're a media darling or not, I'm interested. It's easy to criticize those who've risen to fame.... that's the way the game is played right now, and it's not going to change for a little while yet....

-Media and marketing is everywhere today...architects choosing to ignore opportunities for public exposure for a sense of "integritry" just reflects our profession's inability to function in today's world...the starving mysterious missunderstood eccentric artists.

...and except for maybe Phillip Johnson, I doubt any architect or starchitect " seeks fame for fame's sake", they seek fame so they can get commissions with less restrictions than we do. ...

why can't we improve and educate, but also Dazzle!?

-Being an architect, I assume you need to find ways to get your ideas built... star/non starchitect system, whichever ways works for you, I do not see any evil beings in either of the systems. I always think is more efficient to have a PR or agent works for you, so you have more spare time to work on design rather than socialising with the press.


- I have no problem with the whole "starchitect" system. We live in an age where media is king. The majority of our thoughts and opinions are based from this. I would rather hear about a designer in the media than another vapid story on Hollywood celebrity. The "starchitecture" system has always filled that media gap no matter if it is sensationalist or not. "No press is bad press" What would Metropolis rather write about?

You need a human face behind the buildings.


...this is my greatest fear, and Libeskind is a great example of (it): innovation turned to kitsch. Seems like the question that arises is: What is worse for the profession; not playing the PR game, or becoming kitschy?


-Architecture business unlike others like fashion designer/hair dresser, mostly clients do not come back for more... therefore exposure is part of the survival tactic to expand the network... some become more "loud or stylistic" in the market and become labeled as star... I wouldn't blame the market nor someone being a star for producing work which I do not like... that's reality!

Its not the architects its the coverage of the architects. Its the misdirected hero worship of the architects. These are not fucking rock stars okay. They are very talented people running businesses that require exposure to be successful. Don't blame them. blame the ridiculous media and the namedropping starfuckers

-Has Rem not worked hard? You think Zaha didn't pay her dues?

-...the burdens may be different. Maybe they don't have to hunt down the work, but they have to pick the projects that will keep them going, maintaining the reputation. They have to make each project measure up to the previous work and the expectations that work has created...


...I am proposing that one has to go out there and work with others. Connect in ways that were not possible before, and in that way define how we work. However, I am not advocating for a communal ideal either. What I can see happening is a series of “free agents” coming together for projects with other “free agents” placing the importance on the individual project itself, then moving on and doing other projects. How you would get projects and answer RFP’s, not sure....

-...Exactly! the media as process and method of working, not as glossy images and name dropping.

...But still, it is nice to hold hands and sing kumbaya we are the future, but what are the problems; who signs the drawings? Will there be drawings to sign? Copyrights and intellectual property?as Nobel mentions the starchitect system also works because clients want it, how do you change that economic reality?...

-I agree that the future model of architectural practice lies within open source collaboration, especially within the context of new media technology and building information modeling, but even within this model, I don't think old hierarchies and star-architects will go away unless you look at and address the incentives that perpetuate this system whether economic or the simple desire for fame.

What is the first step? To do away with the pritzker prize?

-Perhaps, but who would turn down the pritzker?

Celebrity isn't going anywhere. In fact it will likely only become more extreme with increased accessibility to media

Sunday, November 15, 2009

65.What is Architecture? (Part 2)

In the previous post in this series What is architecture? we looked at 7 famous architects' take on the subject. In your famous or non famous career as an architect you will have to define what architecture means to you. If you are an architect, you probably have your own definition of it already. If you are any good it will change several times over the course of your career. We continue this series with 7 more ...

Architecture is a pursuit that ought to be seen in a more responsible light than it is. And I think that architects ought to be responsible to society in a number of ways and they need to do that for two reasons: number one is that they’re—presumably—human beings, and secondly, if we don’t do it, who the hell is going to?
-Stanley Tigerman

I like to think of architecture as a very precise discipline. Very different from design and very different from sculpture. At the very basic level you have to deal with developing something with an exterior and an interior. Sculpture does not have that problem. I think that is enabling for architects because it gives us something with a very specific disciplinary rigor that we are required to address. So a lot of our work focus on the relationship between the exterior and the interior and how to create openings between them.
-Gage Clemenceau

Architecture is the mother of the arts, it is the thing that makes all other arts possible like wall paintings and things like that; they have to be in an architectural setting all day.
-Philip Johnson

Architecture as an idea is a little bit like writing as an idea: There are writers that are journalists, there are writers that write business letters, there are writers that write fiction,and there are writers that write great works of literature.
-Jeffrey Kipnis

The way I experience architecture, [is the way] we all experience architecture. How it feels as an atmosphere. The atmosphere we know is composed by light, by shadow, by sound, by tactile qualities. All material qualities, material presence. Nothing new! All the old things, you know! It’s like, all the spaces from our childhood we like, they were like that, if we experience a nice architectural atmosphere, it’s all of that. And some of these sense are maybe, more in foreground, and others, maybe like the sound of the space is more in the background; but nevertheless it’s maybe very important for your absorption of the atmosphere. So I think I’m trying to look, what are the elements, which make my spatial composition rich? I think it’s very normal. At least, everybody experiences architecture like that. There’s no other way. So I think forms are over-rated in talking about architecture, not in experiencing architecture. Forms, are over-rated.
-Peter Zumtor

For me (architecture) is any impact in the built envionment. Its not just a house or a sturcture; its the fabric that you are creating that we as the human spceie live in. So as architects, we have a responsibility not just to the client, but to the community as a whole when we do these projects.

Its not a new practice it is a return to an old practice. Arcitects actually had a lot more respect in years gone by in the centries ago, because we were about growing communitees in ways that improved the livelyhoods, the health, the education of communites. We built structures that improved lives, it doesnt matter if it were a civic structure like a museum or a church...
Now in the last 10-15 years architecture has shifted towards more of a symbolic building. It is more about the form and the structure. We have gone through this incredible computer revolution where we can build anything now. When you get to this point, what is the purpose that we have, if we can push all the boundaries? I think the only boudry that we have is what is the architect's and professon's effect on the community as a whole.
-Cameron Sinclair

Our feellings can be influenced by the form of building - whether or not it looks beautiful, or appropriate, or exciting - whether it seems solid and dependible or flashy and insincere. We can applaud or object to the kinds of things it seems to imply about its place in the world, and our place in the world, and whether it does what we want it to do, or seems to trap and frustrate us. Dwellings are caught up with our lives, and shelter our most intimate moments...

In comparison with the problems set by physicists or logicians, architecture is always complex, with many interesting forces at work on it. The problems posed in architecture can not be solved technically, because there are simply too many interdependent variables, and in practice - since the problems must be solved more or less immediately, are well enough for the time being - various factors are either neglected or else they are taken care of by drawing on the experience offered by tradition and precident. When our ways of doing things are properly engrained, they become habitual and we call them 'common sense'.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

64. What is important in STARchitecture school (part 2)

From: Anonymous
To: architect.journal[at]gmail.com
Sent: Wed, October 28, 2009 6:42:33 AM
Subject: [NOTES ON BECOMING A FAMOUS ARCHITECT] New comment on 63. What is important in STARchitecture school.

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "63. What is important in STARchitecture school":

I think that it should be made clear that most Bartlett students can do all the rudimentary tasks that you speak of "architects" doing. They are not difficult. Rather than writing an intelligent comparison or analysis, you seem to have only written an article illustrating, perhaps, the mild inferiority you feel. I have not even studied at the Bartlett, and I can clearly see that. Perhaps you should just accept that architecture schools do things differently. Some are creative, others not. Why is the creativity of the Bartlett such a problem for you, you dont have to go and study there. What I find interesting however is that you never find Bartlett or other "creative" students attacking the more plain and normal design schools. I'd be suprised if you even allow this to be shown on your blog, as i know you have to approve this.

Publish this comment.

Reject this comment.

Posted by Anonymous to NOTES ON BECOMING A FAMOUS ARCHITECT at October 28, 2009 6:42 AM

Dear Anonymous-defender-of-the-Bartlett-who-have-never-ever-even-attended-there-ever-really,

First of all, take a breather and put a nice little smile on your face.
Have you done that?
I am smiling too.

Let me just explain one thing which I think you might have misinterpreted. The article was not directed at the Bartlett School per-say. I threw a banana cream pie at Starchitecture schools in general and the Bartlett was the closest one in the cross hairs. I have friends who have attended the Bartlett (how do you think I know all this stuff) and I am just poking fun at them and the rest of the Bartlett as well.

Okay, lets get down to business, so where should we start? How about where we agree?

"I think that it should be made clear that most Bartlett students can do all the rudimentary tasks that you speak of "architects" doing. They are not difficult."

I know, I know, there are lots of Bartlett people who go out and do the "rudamentary" tasks of an architect and more. But between you and I though, did you really have to let the whole freeking world know how easy an architect's job is? There are non-architects reading this blog too you know. Gaad damn you!... I mean, have you ever heard of a magician telling the whole world how easy it is to pull a rabbit out of a hat? That really ticks me off. If I am ever in a dark alley and see an Anonymous-defender-of-the-Bartlett-who-have-never-ever-even-attended-there-ever-really, I am going to take out my pocket knife and cut its little tale off.

"I'd be suprised if you even allow this to be shown on your blog, as i know you have to approve this."

I am surprised too. I thought these Jedi reverse-psychology mind tricks thingies only worked on weak minded people. I really am surprised at how weak minded I am. I am setting up a meditation session with Yoda next week. Use the force Conrad...use the force...

Anyway, where were we....yes!, I am glad we could agree on those two points.
I do however, have some serious disagreements with you though:

Where I disagree with you most is that you somehow think that the inferiority that I feel is mild. Let me tell you, it is vast and it runs deep. Heavens man! I wrote a whole article about this. You don't do this unless you have some serious issues.

You also made the assumption that alternative to writing this article I could have written "an intelligent comparison or analysis". This stipulates that I am capable of writing something intelligent in the first place. ......How little do you know....

You were saying something about the creativity of the Bartlett teaching?...
Fist off, I don't think creativity is something you can teach. Most people are born with it; either you have it or you don't. Some schools nurture this, some schools don't. I think the Bartlett is one that does not....Calm the hell down, let me explain....
First see the definition below:

CREATIVITY: the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.;

The operative word here being meaningful. Creativity thrives within constraints; its about finding novel and thoughtful solutions especially when you have to work around complexities. MacGyver is creative, the team of Apollo 13 was creative (have you seen the movie? check it out it's a nice one), and yes architects working under real world constraints like gravity for instance, contracts, limited budgets, being responsible to society, construction methods etc. A creative person can look at all these constraints and pressures as a challenge and come up with a thoughtful rigorous solution that transcend traditional rules, patterns, etc.

Starchitecture schools by and large removes the constraints of the real world; if your project is too expensive, just imagine that you have unlimited budget, if it cant withstand gravity, just pretend there was less of it, if the forms you come up with doesn't work for human beings just say its a space for cyborgs.
What the Bartlett faculty nurtures is fantasy & imagination. The Random House dictionary defines imagination as follows:

IMAGINATION: the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.
the faculty of producing ideal creations consistent with reality, as in literature,
the product of imagining; a conception or mental creation, often a baseless or fanciful one.

I don't have a problem with a school nurturing imagination we need more of it. Remember it was Einstein who said "Imagination is more important than knowledge", but it is not a substitute for creativity. Just wanted to clarify that, if we are going to be clear on things, lets be clear.

"Why is the creativity of the Bartlett such a problem for you, you dont have to go and study there. What I find interesting however is that you never find Bartlett or other "creative" students attacking the more plain and normal design schools."

Frank Murray who commented before you [see his comment above yours] pointed out an interesting little article written by a Bartlett graduate and made a comment at the bottom. I paste it here, perhaps it might answer some of your questions:

I do think schools like the Bartlett which I think was labeled by Conrad Newel on NOBAFA as Starchitecture schools offer interesting perspectives on architecture and other fields as well. I do however think they have a confused agenda. They seem to want to be an architecture school and a school of alternate visual media culture at the same time. More often than not these agendas work against each other. The discipline of architecture is vast and there is much to learn, so is the research in visual culture. They should make a choice and be clear about it. Are you training students to be architects or something else that has to do with architecture? What should a student expect to learn when they finish school? What are you being prepared for. If bartlett graduates go on to become film-makers, and video game designers, and such, maybe its a good idea to say it is not an architecture school and say it is a school of visual media. Then you will attract students with that goal in mind. It has a lot to do with openness. I believe what frustrates professors such as Patrick Lynch is that he holds his profession very dear and when someone comes along and do something very different and calls it the same thing then it devalues what he does.

Consider, if a school opens up and starts teaching alternative medicine (acupuncture, aromatherapy, Atkins diet, chiropractic medicine, herbalism, breathing meditation, yoga,etc), gives its graduates medical degrees and sent them off to hospitals and emergency rooms to perform surgery, a lot of people would have a problem with that. This is, in effect, what the architectural profession is doing when it allows schools like the Bartlett to give architecture degrees. The medical profession will not allow it but the architectural profession does.

I couldn't have said it better myself. When you do something else and call it architecture, not only do you devalue the profession, you are making a direct attack on its integrity. So when you say that you find it interesting that you never find the Bartlett " attacking the more plain and normal design schools." I say what the hell are you talking about! If they called it the Bartlett School of Alternate Visual Media no one would have a problem.

Get one thing clear, I don't defend mediocrity or the status-quo in architecture. Saying no to blown up post-industrial apocalyptic fantasies is not saying yes to mediocrity. There is a vast world between the two. This is a common fallacy that comes up when Bartlett professors defend their antics. "Oh the only alternative to what we do is plain, normal, boring stuff". Boy they must have some hell of an ego!

From: Anonymous
Sent: Wed, October 28, 2009 7:39:07 PM
Subject: [NOTES ON BECOMING A FAMOUS ARCHITECT] New comment on 63. What is important in STARchitecture school.

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "63. What is important in STARchitecture school":

You know, not everyone from the Bartlett can be so easily categorized. It really just comes across as a little bigoted. There really are some who know how to design great buildings, which are not only attractive but also truly function, because they know how to do the typical Bartlett beautiful shit but combine it with intelligent design, merging all the things you claim only "architects" can do. I think its those guys that your mediocrity should be afraid of.

Posted by Anonymous to NOTES ON BECOMING A FAMOUS ARCHITECT at October 28, 2009 6:25 AM

Dear Other-Anonymous-defender-of-the-Bartlett

Here we go again with the its-either-Bartlett-or-it's-mediocrity argument. If I had any hair left on my head I would be pulling it out right now!
Pleeeease..... stop it! The arrogance is killing me.
If you continue with this I would be inclined to think that when you said "intelligent design" you really meant it.
Take a look at the last paragraph of my reply above.

If you think I try to categorize Bartlett students or students from any Starchitecture school, read my article again and you will come to the same conclusion as I did; it is a figment of your highly developed imagination. I do not categorize students. I think architecture students, whether they are from the Bartlett or not, come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes.; some smart, some dull, some rich, some poor, some talented some not so talented. Starchitecture School faculty however ...are categorically predictable. They come in one color; BLACK! Black shirts, black pants, black frame glasses, black souls; and I am not talking about shoe parts (which are also black by the way).

The students of these schools are the victims. Get it straight! I draw a line when I throw banana cream pies. I have come to admire architecture students very much. They are the hardest working, most resilient beings I know. Cockroaches have nothing on them in a competition of resiliency.

Consider this, a typical student at any starchitecture school will have to put up with a lot of stupid and demeaning shit from faculty members while they are in school. I described this in the article. They come with earnest minds and accounts burdened with student loans. They come to learn architecture, and instead they are demeaned by their starchitecture professors, insulted, stepped on, slighted, compared to monkeys by others etc. (some think this is a right-of-passage, I think it is right-out-bullshit) Students are used as guinea-pigs to test and push their professor's agendas. I have even heard that Batrlett students and units are encouraged to compete against each other because they believe "competition is healthy". The result? you have students getting caught between ego wars among professors, you get an ethical and social malaise were students are pitted against each other. The only thing that thrives in this environment is the graphics and presentation in your projects, because this is how the apparent winner is determined. My dear Other-Anonymous-defender-of-the-Bartlett, the measure of an education is not by how pretty your presentation and graphics are. When you do that your project, the process and the research around it (the substance of your education) is held hostage to the tyranny of the graphical presentation. I will say this, a little competition is healthy in academia, but the level of competition that goes on there is destructive and it is ultimately your education that suffers. In reality Architecture is a team sport equivalent to football, not a bloody kill or be killed sport like dog or cock fighting (if you want to call that a sport).

Students are pushed out into the world with very little skills to practice architecture beyond a great imagination and some computer graphics skills. This is why a lot of them don't even bother to persue a career in architecture after they graduate; they go into the video game industry, they become film makers, animators, etc. That makes sense that they would do that, doesn't it? When you find a graduate from a starciteture school like the Bartlett combining his/her two-dimensional education with the rigor of the architectural world to make great architecture, know this; The didn't learn the bulk of what they are using in starchitecture school. They are thrown out into the world and left to fend for them selves and they still do it. That inspires respect not belittlement. I belittle the professors not the students. Note the difference.

The few that do become the chosen one; the starchitect's prodigy who takes on and defend the position of their dark overlords and mentors, I can empathize with. They are like young Anakin Skywalker slowly being swallowed up by the dark side of the force. They are waiting to become the next Peter Eisenman or Norman Foster. But fair warning, if they use themselves to protect and shield my target, I will not be responsible for any banana cream pie that they may find themselves licking off their faces.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

63. What is important in STARchitecture school (part 1)

Star⋅chi⋅tec⋅ture School stär'kĭ-těk'chər skool


  1. Architecture schools that build their attractiveness, competitiveness or status on the accomplishments & reputation of their starcitecture faculty.

  2. architecture schools that grooms students to become "starchitects"

  3. architecture schools that mimics the teaching practices of starchitecture schools.
When I found myself subtracting or adding columns because it made my rendering look better, then I knew I was in a starchitecture school.

Below are samplings of diploma projects selected from two different schools. As you look at them consider the following questions:

Which ones would you rather live or work in?
Which ones would you choose as the location for an exciting movie or video game?



SAMPLE SET A is from Diploma Unit 20 run by Professors Shaun Murray and Marjan Colletti at The Bartlett School in London. One can safely describe this studio if not the entire Bartlett as an architecture school that mimics the teaching practices of starchitecture schools.

SAMPLE SET B is from a Thesis Course run by Professor Lance J. Brown at The City College of New York. Opposed to The Bartlett, The City Collage does not seem to fit the profile of a starchitecture school.

The projects in both sets lack to varying degrees some credibility as a project that is possible to realize. Obviously one much more than the other.

The is because most architecture schools are not set up to teach you how to design a building.
In fact, The point of architecture school is NOT to teach you how to design a building.
Let me say that again.

The point of architecture school is NOT to teach you how to design a building.

Take a moment and meditate on that.

If you want to learn how to design a building you should go and apprentice for an architect or a builder under no false pretense.

Then what's the point of architecture school you ask?

The short answer is that it has many points depending on the school that you go to.

For example most schools share some of these objectives:

  • How to challenge the boundaries of conventional practice

  • How to communicate ideas through drawing, model making, writing and speaking

  • To be socially and ethically engaged in society (a few will do this)

  • To expose students to the creative and technical aspects of architecture

  • To equip you with the knowledge required for making architecture

  • How to be critical of current practice

  • To bring you abreast with the prevailing issues in current practice

  • To give you the scholarship to define architecture on your own terms

  • To give you a rough understanding of building construction and design

and if you are lucky, you might also learn

  • How to understand & appreciate good craftsmanship in building

  • or something about building construction methods

You will find some of these same objectives in starchitecture schools but what makes them stand apart from other architecture schools is that they prioritize one objective over all others:

  • How to create projects that have high entertainment value.
That is, projects that are entertaining to look at (as the images from Bartlett studio above) or entertaining to discuss (because of the ideas that they investigate), or a mixture of the two. These projects aim to stimulate us in a certain way, to make us curious, or interested, because it is new or we have never seen something like that before.


Because of this emphasis, there is little time left to actually learn about designing a building. Creating entertaining images takes enormous amounts of time and energy, time taken away from seriously engaging in an investigation of your building's craftsmanship, construction methods, or its social or economic viability. God forbid any talk about end-user satisfaction, even plain old common sense is sent to the side lines. These are not so important in the big picture as far as starchitecture schools are concerned. Projects in such schools only need to demonstrate the remote possibility of being credible in the real world that you and I live in. The possibility that just maybe it can withstand the force of gravity, that maybe there is some kind of material on this planet that can do the things you show it doing in your project or perhaps it might be able to keep us relatively dry and warm in tumultuous weather. The term "suspension of disbelief" comes to mind.

I have seen many students walk through the doors of starchitecture school with earnest minds wanting to learn how to design a building. Their attempts at rigor by questioning the viability of their high entertainment value projects in the real world are met with explanations that are lacking in reason, smoothly buttered in archispeak and delicately glazed in the finest snake oil possible.

The ones who quickly realizes that it is not about learning to design buildings and that it is about creating an entertaining project wins the cake. And when I say they win the cake, I mean they win the cake with a capital C. You will get extended one-on-one desk crits with the starchitect or star-minded professor(s) who will design your project with or for you. They will have you make your project based on their own pre-formulated theory and convince you that it really came from you. They will tell you which projects to "reference" and which magazines to find them in. They will help you pick out a sky for your rendering and show you how to tweak the elements in the foreground and background to create depth in your image. They will even advise you on which font to use on your poster. When your project is done, you will get the VIP spot on the wall to hang their/your work and a hearty pat on the back for a job well done. The ones who don't get it are sent packing like a fired Donald Trump apprentice.

Starchitecture teaching methodology focuses on having students create projects based on said professors latest theories that he/she is very excited about. If it seam rolls your education in the process, well so be it. If you demonstrate independent thinking or fail to fall in line behind such theories, prepare to be ignored, disowned or snubbed. Remember your job is to provide fantastic images in the form of a project that celebrates your professors latest theories. How well your project flies is directly connected to starchitect-professor's ego and self worth. It can be extremely stressful, not to mention embarrassing for him/her to invite his colleagues over for a jury to show off his latest ideas....ahem... I mean your project, and have you make a mockery of it.

A major point of STARchitecture school is
to make your professor look good when he/she
brings their coleagues over to see their/your work.

If you are a very successful starchitecture student, not only will you have learned to fall in line, you will have learned to research all your professors projects before-hand. You will not only know what kind of rendering style he likes, you will know how to mimic them as well. When your starchitecture professor brings over his black cloaked star-minded friends for a crit, he will proudly point to your project on the wall and say "Isn't it amazing?" and they will say "yeaaas that's very interesteeeeng" and then another will say "its rear to see a work with such originality and passion". They also love to say stuff like "oh, you have captured the essence of ....bla, bla, bla." At this point try to remain humble. Your clueless classmates are probably scratching their heads and foaming at the mouth at how they managed to look past the gaping holes in your projects plausibility (especially when they were grilled on every undotted "i" and uncrossed "t" in their crits). Don't get me wrong, these guys are capable of criticizing the project of the starchitect's prodigy. They might say "Oh just one minor thing though, I would have liked to see some more orange from the sunset peaking out from behind the building in that image." "yeaaas, yeaaas, that would have nailed it" the others might confirm.

By the time you finish starchitecture school, you should have a portfolio of very interesting and entertaining looking projects thats kind of credible. Don't worry about credibility, a good starchitecture firm will overlook this "hey this is a school project you don't have to worry so much about reality, it is about communicating your vision"

When you bring this to a starchitectre firm, it will remind him of himself as a young man. He will say "wow this kid has passion, he has got imagination, he can render, he has a good eye, he works with photoshop well, he knows about graphic design, he can put a compelling image together. You are hired!"

So why did he hire you when he knows very well that you don't know how to design a building?

Because you are not hired to design buildings stupid! you are hired to provide fantastic images that celebrates your employer's projects, to make good images for the media. You are the office's latest graphics plug-in.

Inside the starchitecture firm you will meet some architects who think about issues like rain, and light, and circulation, and fire safety, and how the components of the building fit together, and such. No it gets even crazier... are you ready for this? They love this stuff. They find it very exciting. They can talk for hours on end about building joints and details. They don't care about poster fonts, or archispeak or what kind of sky, or foreground or background is used in an image. They understand architecture through the notations of plans, sections & elevations. They can imagine how a building looks without the aid of a rendering. Thats right! no renderings. Imagine that. They have no other agenda but to design a functioning building that is well made and pleasant to be in. You will find a few of them in Starchitecture firms.

Say hello to these dullards, they are the people who will teach you how to design a building and make an architect out of you. If they are like any other architects I know in this position (resigned to teaching architecture 101 while trying to deliver a project), they are grumpy as all hell. They will snap at you for not knowing what V.I.F. means on a construction document or for not knowing something that they deem "basic-shit-that-every-dumb-ass-should-know" (what ever that is for them that morning). But never mind, just suck it up, what does he know? He is just an architect. He is no star. He respects plumbing diagrams and toilet bowl specifications, not magazine covers. He will never be famous for anything. Who ever gets famous for designing a building that is just good to live or work in. Ever heard of a reporter asking to publish your building because it performed well under fire. He will never even raise his head from the murky depth of obscurity, not even for 15 minutes. You've got your priorities straight and you are on your way to becoming a Star.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

64. What is important in STARchitecture school (part 2)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

62. Have a little humanity, but not too much...(part 1)

Last week Foster + Partners launched the design of a school in Sierra Leone at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London.

The project was developed in cooperation with Save the Children among others, and integrates passive ventilation systems and natural lighting.
Foster argues that it is based on a modular system that can be quickly assembled with conventional stock wood, local brush-sticks, and sheet metal. This gives the project some environmental advantages. Whats more, the modules can also be easily reconfigured to adjust to the specific needs of varying districts in Sierra Leone.
So the project is not only smart, it saves the children and the earth too.
Where I come from we say "thats a lot of bang for your buck right there!"

Starchitects worldwide should take note and follow the lead of Mr Foster. Why? Because this one is a token that comes straight from his heart.

One only has to look around at the current economic and social climate. We are in a financial crisis caused by unregulated greed and excess. Starchitects are seen as part of this piggish, extravagant and irresponsible finical sector or at least a willing accomplice. It has even come to jokes like this one:
Question: What do you call a bunch of CEOs, starchitects and bankers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
Answer: not enough, lawyers are saints compared to you wretches...

The image is of unrestrained self indulgence... bling bling that is...

To remain respectable and relevant one must change the image from the one above to the one below

In order to understand the utter sophistication in this move I may have to do something completely radical. I will take you on my magic carpet and sweep you off to TV land.

lets go!

The first stop on our journey is the magical cloudy zone called TV phenomenology. We come upon the hip and funky kingdom of the token black guy.

The urban dictionary defines it as:
Any fictional character of African-American descent that has been inconsequentially inserted into the plot a movie or TV show for the express purposes of creating an image of commercially safe, politically correct, and insipid racial harmony. In eras gone by the token black guys would be the first characters to be killed off. This phenomena of commercial cinema and television that would sacrifice the quality of their storytelling for the sake of attempting the impossible act of offending absolutely nobody, is succinctly satirized by the aptly named south park character, Token.

Token from south park, Charley in the TV show Friends.

Any black character in any movie that is neither the protagonist nor antagonist, is unimportant to the plot and does not significantly contribute to it, preferably dies before the end, usually does not end up with the girl. sometimes is the sidekick if the role is unimportant enough, and is very often comic relief (often in stereotype-enforcing manner).

Here the character squarely defines his token role

if the balance gets out of hand then it is swiftly dealt with.

The point of a token project functions amazingly similar to the role of token black guy: it is done more or less for the express purposes of creating an image of a commercially safe, and politically correct starchitecture firm whose radical days are gone (if it ever had one).

If we look at the architect's body of work as a set of characters. We can see the token project is unimportant to the firms portfolio and does not significantly contribute to it; a sidekick really.

A proper starchitect never let the ratio of such projects get out of control. Just a small token is needed. With this project, Norm firmly places a hand over your shoulder and says "hey! I am one of the good guys".

The chart below exhibits a healthy ratio for a thriving starchitect: The irrelevant is limited to a strict minimum. Like the culture necessary to produce a fine cheese, you need just enough to get the job done.

Now lets look at exhibit B. This shows the portfolio of architect Cameron Sinclair.
There is a problem here. Can anyone identify it?

Of course! He got it all backwards; this guy is totally off his rockers.
With a portfolio like this the Pritzker is nowhere in sight for miles and miles.
We will take a closer look at this eccentric next week and learn what NOT to do, in part 2 of this series.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

61. Is architecture in your soul?

We found this curious recording from our friends over at Sheppard Robson and we just could not pass it up. For the sake of clarity we have also posted the definition of ARCHITECTURE + SOUL as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

(är'kĭ-těk'chər) n.

  1. The art and science of designing and erecting buildings.
  2. Buildings and other large structures: the low, brick-and-adobe architecture of the Southwest.
  3. A style and method of design and construction: Byzantine architecture.
  4. Orderly arrangement of parts; structure: the architecture of the federal bureaucracy; the architecture of a novel.

(sōl) n.
  1. The animating and vital principle in humans, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity.
  2. The spiritual nature of humans, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state.
  3. The disembodied spirit of a dead human.
  4. A human: "the homes of some nine hundred souls" (Garrison Keillor).
  5. The central or integral part; the vital core: "It saddens me that this network ... may lose its soul, which is after all the quest for news" (Marvin Kalb).
  6. A person considered as the perfect embodiment of an intangible quality; a personification: I am the very soul of discretion.
  7. A person's emotional or moral nature: "An actor is ... often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not" (Alec Guinness).
  8. A sense of ethnic pride among Black people and especially African Americans, expressed in areas such as language, social customs, religion, and music.
  9. A strong, deeply felt emotion conveyed by a speaker, a performer, or an artist.
  10. Soul music.
[Middle English, from Old English sāwol.]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

60. Play Peter, the Pritzker Peddling Hermit Genius

Some years ago, I used to go around thinking of Frank Gehry as a total schmuck. He went around making these wonky absurd things in god-awful materials and calling it architecture. His mantra seemed to be: lets do something totally stupid looking and ask why not? "I am so playful and whimsical" seemed to be the chant behind every spell he casts. The impression I had of him was that he made architecture look way too easy, you just put a newspaper or binoculars down on a model and voila! instant interesting architecture. And if anyone dares to say that they were annoyed by all this, they were labeled as narrow minded or too "hermetic" in their thinking. All of his detractors were put in this same box. His work, especially his early work was meant to be visually disturbing like his contemporary artist friends.

Then some years later, I reluctantly went into the Guggenheim in New York to see a retrospective of his work there. I came away surprisingly with a very different opinion of him and his work. Although I still did not care much for it, I came away with a lot of respect for him and what he was doing. For the first time I saw all the work that went into each project (or at least the story behind them). There were several different studies and experiments leading up to the final built thing. It was very different from the outward branding campaign that was publicly seen in all the media snippets of him telling an assistant to fold a piece of paper and then yeah! that looks so stupid I love it! The exhibition showed a different attitude, it showed an architect testing and trying out different things, looking at how to solve real problems, attentiveness to solving space, light, materials as any and every architect does.

What I realized was that I was so hypnotized by his branding machine that I was not able to tell the difference between the architect and the branding. The exhibition snapped me out of the spell and allowed me to see the difference.

It was then to my surprise some weeks ago when I learned that Peter Zumthor won the Pritzker prize that I thought to my self. "Oh that's so great, Zumthor is one of my favorite architects. I really like his work and I like his demeanor. He doesn't want publicity, he doesn't make an effort to publish his works in the glossy magazines, and finally the Pritzker prize committee selects such a person. It just goes to show, if you just work hard at what you do and don't worry about publicity or being famous you will be recognized, yada, yada, yada."

I heard my self and suddenly snapped out of it.
"Hey wait a minute!" I thought.
"just hold on one second.
stop the music!
That's not true!

Peter is okay and everything but don't get hypnotized by his branding machine.
Oh...and the Pritzker committee selecting an obscure nobody?...hogwash!

Time for a reality check folks.

Every famous architect whether it is Frank Gehry playing Whimsical Wizard,
Frank Lloyd Wright playing Egotistical Master, or
Rem Koolhaas playing Intellectual Sheep,
all have a branding game-plan that is strategically aimed at getting fame and recognition.
Peter Zumthor playing Hermit Genius is no different.

Fame and recognition does not just happen! you have to work at it! A million dollars will not just fall into your lap if you go to work everyday and do a good job without a plan of how to make it happen, and neither will a Pritzker prize fall into your lap if you just go off deep into the mountains and make good architecture unbeknown to anyone. Fame and recognition like any other career path must be carefully cultivated. Its like the old computer adage "garbage in garbage out": The results that you get are based on what you put in to it.

  • If you put your energy into making good buildings, sooner or later you will realize a good building.
  • If you put your energy into getting famous, sooner or later you will be famous.
  • If you put some energy into making good buildings and some energy into making your self famous, sooner or later you will be a famous architect. It requires a dual effort.
  • If you find a famous architect who put most of his energy into becoming famous, it will be plain to see that he is famous for being famous. I am sure this is not what most people want.
  • If you make a balanced effort in both areas, as Zumthor has done, you will see that too.

Besides doing good work, making interesting and/or quality architecture, putting an effort into being famous and getting recognition means publishing, writing, branding, going on the lecture circuit, building symbolic capital, schmoozing, and basically doing whatever you can to be visible in a positive way. The last time I checked Zumthor had close to a dozen books published in several languages, here is a list, just to name a few: Thinking Architecture, Peter Zumthor Therme Vals, Peter Zumthor Works: Buildings Projects, Atmospheres: Architectural Environments - Surrounding Objects, Corps Sonore Suisse (Swiss Sound Box), Architecture in Vorarlberg, Three Concepts: Thermal Bath Vals‎, A+U Extra Edition: Peter Zumthor and this one titled just plain old "Peter Zumthor". This does not include the countless articles, and magazine publications (glossy & non-glossy) that he has personally written or consented to by providing materials (images of the works, press releases, interviews etc).

You will notice that this is not consistent with the part of his ingenious branding strategy/philosophy of "I don't believe in publishing images of the work because architecture must be experienced first hand". He publishes anyway, because he has to. This elaborate brand is shrouded around a hermitesqe-philosopher-monk like mystique: His official press release photos shows him clad in what looks like a priest's shirt minus the neck collar piece, unpretentious, his arms folded, a stoic glare behind a meticulously trimmed white beard and short militarily disciplined hair cut. His writing style is largely phenomenological and reads like a mythology storybook. He touts beliefs like "I am not a networker, I’m not a difficult star. I’m simply someone who wants to do good work". He is eager to talk about how small his firm is and how selective he is with accepting commissions: "I can’t be bought with money" is his attitude towards clients.

If everyone knew how calculated all of this is, they would be astounded. Not just astounded--it would unveil his mystique and wreck his brand.

At this point, I should wave a flaming disclaimer that I don't believe he is insincere for one moment. You have to believe in your mystique whole heartedly before anyone else can believe in you. It has to come from you and resonate with your core beliefs and who you are. That's the first rule in building a brand or mystique. It would appear that the humble-one has deluded himself into believing that all this does not equal promoting himself and his work. Your job as an aspiring great-one, is to not buy into this delusion. Be aware that it is a brand, and that it is part of an elaborate, premeditated, well managed promotional strategy.

Besides the publications and the mystique-branding, he has certainly not shied away from the lecture circuit: Just google "peter+zumthor+lectures" and you will see a"zumthor wuz here" list of places far and wide where this globe trotting mountain hermit has been speaking ( ie. self promoting). If you are not an incredible networker, you can not pull this off. But lets say you are not an incredible networker and you somehow managed to pull this off, you would have to be either brain-dead or extremely socially repulsive not to come away with a network of friends and contacts that reads like a who-is-who-list in the world of architecture and beyond.

If you can ever find a copy of his resume, you will also see that he has built a treasure chest of symbolic capital: connections, awards, prestigious teaching positions, etc. He has taught at renowned schools from SCI-ARC in Los Angeles to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, (far away from the obscure mountains of Switzerland), where he has no doubt rubbed shoulders and schmoozed with the famous and well connected (even some of the Jurors of the Pritzker prize committee).

I am sorry, I just don't believe in random luck. There is a saying "the harder you work the luckier you get". Zumthor certainly worked hard at his luck and now it has paid off. He is a brilliant networker, brander, and self-promoter whether he sees himself that way or not! Three cheers to Mr. Zumthor for a Pritzker well earned. Don't envy him, emulate him!

As for the Pritzker prize committee, they have historically given the prize to well established starchitects: Heavyweights in the field who have largely branded themselves as stars. As we have seen in the previous post, the era of the starchitect is over. The committee finds itself in an awkward position. On the one hand they are way too embarrassed to bestow the award on someone who overtly brands himself as starchitect, and on the other hand they are way too parochial to pick someone outside the establishment. So why not choose a starchitect who brands himself as "I am totally not interested in being a starchitect" What other choice did they have? I am really curious to see who the other candidates were.

In the coming days you will see many articles published about the Pritzker prize winner where he will be lauded for operating outside the establishment in a tiny remote village in the Swiss mountains, far removed from the international architecture scene. They will write about how he eschews the publicity and the promotions. They will describe him as the son of a lowly carpenter. Upon being told that he will receive the prize he made this statement:

That a body of work as small as ours is recognized in the professional world makes us feel proud and should give much hope to young professionals that if they strive for quality in their work it might become visible without any special promotion.

Without any special promotion? huh? When you look at the avalanche of these disingenuous statements, I implore you to resist gazing at the swinging pendulum of this hypnotic branding machine. I offer this statement to young professionals instead:
You won't get wise with the sleep still in your eyes, no matter what your dreams might be.
I am happy for Peter Zumthor, I wish him well, he is a good architect, as I said before, I like his work very much, but please don't insult me with the "I just make good work in tiny Swiss mountain" story line. Success leaves clues, and there are there to see, right before our eyes if we only open them and look.
Good work + Good Promotion = Fame & Recognition.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

59.Take a Lesson from Diller+Scofidio+Renfero

If you have been paying any attention. you have no doubt seen this interview of Diller+Scofidio+Renfero. I am posting it here...well because I like it. What the hell. It is also relevant to almost everything that has been discussed in this blog. It will aslo serve as a reference and prelude to some of the topics to come. Hint, hint, the recession, the end of the starchitecture era, interdiciplinary practice and ooh ooh faith. So without further adieu, read on.


S:Elizabeth and I started working when there was a recession in architecture. When architecture turned into paper architecture, doing drawings and sketches, showing in galleries...

The only way of building then was to start being involved in performances theaters, out on the beach, art installations, where we could build something and see the reaction from the public

D: the recession was coincidental, I came to architecture really with no intention of being an architect. I studied architecture and I was always interested to be an artist and slowly we started to work around issues of space. We were interested in conventions of the every day, we were interested in domesticity, we were interested in issues of visuality, there were many issues that were of interest, but always in between disciplines.

S: We never said lets start working and develop an office or studio, hire people, lets get jobs. We always found things that interested us and that's where we went.

D:We were always a research studio. We were always interested in research whether the outcome was in the form of an installation, in the form of a book, or ultimately in the from of a building. They were just iterations of different forms of the same ideas.

S: Before Elizabeth and I started working together, I had been at another practice, and I had been really sour with the way the profession of architecture was approaching jobs, work and getting commissions. It had nothing to do with issues of architecture. It had to with: I have to produce an income, I have to get work, I have to stay alive.

D: There was an intellectual bankruptcy at the time in 1979... the discourse was happening only academically there was very little in the profession.


D: Sometimes we were thought of as just wanting to be on the periphery; a decision to want to lob grenades from the periphery at architecture critically...
when we had a chance to do this building, for many people it was a kind of a wake up, for us it was a kind of validation.

S: Before that we did theater, performance, installations, and a lot of architects accuse us of not being able to deal with comprise, not being able to deal with difficult issues of construction. They thought we were taking the easy way out. They kept saying "wait till you do a building... you will see".

CR: And what did you find out when you did a building?

S: The problems are there in everything you do whether you do a drinking glass (which we have done for water), there are complex problems.


R: We didn't know how to achieve what we wanted to achieve here. We knew that we waned to make the hall an integral part of the performance , we knew that we wanted it to glow but nobody had done that before. We didn't know technically how to achieve it. So it was a process that we embarked on, we didn't know what the end result would be

S: In many of our projects we didn't know how we are going to achieve them. When we did a cloud in Switzerland, we didn't have the slightest idea how we were going to achieve that. So I think that is one of the things that is important to us is taking that leap of faith and believing in yourself that you are going to get there as you have to do it.

D: We usually take that leap of faith off a cliff without a parachute and we figure it out on the way down...


R: The era that we have been in is the Starchitecture era.
Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, there are many that probably your average American knows now. In the past 10 years we have been introduced to them where as before no one would have known anyone but Frank Lloyd Wright. There is a coincidence between a booming economy and an interest in architecture and also an align between branding and architecture; that made for very glamorous, very exciting and very iconic buildings. We are no longer in that age. That age cant co-exist with our current economic situation. Nor is it the Obama generation's age of architecture. This age is much more careful, much more thoughtful. We are not not-interested in image but we are also interested in doing the right thing. So we are in a new age of balance.

S: I think you are right in one respect, that there was a moment maybe about 40 years ago when you said "I like Frank Lloyd Wight, I am going to do Frank Lloyd Wright buildings" and you would try to build buildings as close to what Frank Lloyd Wright would build or "I like Mies" and you would defiantly do something that was as Miesian as possible. Then there was a moment when architects began to posses their work, their ideas and say "if I do this, you cant do that"

D:I think starchitcture has began to loose a little bit of the glow. People began to be a little repetitive. There were a lot of people that were important in the field that were called on over and over again. Their brand was desired. It wasn't just the name, it was that image of the work. And that work was rubber stamped over and over again and it didn't allow people to grow.

The Ciliary Function, Eyebeam Atelier of New Media & Technology: The Charles and Ray Eames Lecture, Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio, Flesh: Architectural Probes, Blur: The Making of Nothing, Back to the Front: Tourisms of War, Wired Magazine, February 2000, Vol. 8, #2 (Cybernetics pioneer, Kevin Warwick. Martin Nisenholtz made headlines by taking The New York Times digital. Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio on Architecture.), Charlie Rose - Liz Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro (March 31, 2009)

Liberating Minds Since August 2007