Icons Versus Places

Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces was recently entangled in a dispute with architect Frank Gehry over the impact of iconic architecture in cities. Though Gehry's work has its moments, Kent says city emphasis on icons is a mistake.

"[T]he recent trend toward "iconic" architecture and design-which has gained a big following in the media and among high-profile clients, winning numerous prizes-minimizes the importance of citizen input and dismisses the goals of creating great public places. Instead it promotes a design-centric philosophy where all that matters is the artistic statement conceived by an internationally recognized celebrity. Frank Gehry, an architect of considerable talent and imagination, drew world attention to the iconic design movement with his famous Guggenheim Musuem in Bilbao, Spain. In the process, he inaugurated an era in which designers call all the shots in creating our cityscapes, leaving us with showy buildings and landscape forms meant to be admired from a distance rather than contributing to the vitality of everyday life in a local community."

Kent argues that cities need to place more importance on creating spaces that will actually be used, rather than expensive and underused spotlight buildings.

Full Story: Moving Beyond the "Smackdown" Towards an Architecture of Place



Gehry And Private Places

I agree completely with Fred Kent that Gehry and other starchitects care about creating icons rather than about creating good places for people, but I would go a step further and say that this leads them to create bad private places as well as bad public places:

[the Guggenheim museum] disorients the user because its exterior does not have the horizontal and vertical surfaces of traditional buildings. It is clad in titanium - a material that is not practical because of its cost but that definitely is very new, very different, and very shiny.

After Gehry did a few buildings in this style, they no longer seemed quite as new and different as they used to, and Gehry branched out by designing the Stata Center at MIT, whose walls look like they are collapsing. Because its leaning walls met its roof at odd angles, the Stata Center had so many leaks that that a Boston Globe columnist called it a "$300 million fixer-upper." The leaning walls also disorient users by making it seem like the floors and ceilings slope, though they actually do not. MIT professor Noam Chomsky said that, when he moved into his office in this building, he got vertigo whenever he looked up at the corner where the wall met the ceiling: he almost fainted the first time he used the office, and he finally made it tolerable by filling it with plants to hide the room's shape. Chomsky also said that it was hard for him to do his work in this office because he could not hang a blackboard on a leaning wall.

Though they have no deliberate symbolic content, Gehry's buildings inadvertently symbolize the fact that our culture is devoted to sensationalism and to novelty, no matter what the expense in human terms.

from http://www.preservenet.com/archtime/ArchTime.html#ch3

Kent says that the Guggenheim is an "artistic achievement," but architects at most times in history would not have said that a building is good architecture if it is a striking abstract sculpture but is not a good building for people to use.

Stata Center lacks firmness and commodity, and I for one think it is also a feeble attempt at delight. Like other starchitect buildings, the only delight is the novelty.

Charles Siegel

Beta Regio

"All great architecture leaks" - Author Unknown

Yes it’s easy to criticize architecture, but it's hard to create also. As far as the Deconstructionist movement goes, right wrong or indifferent, Frank Gehry is one of the most talented architects in the style.

We would still be living in caves, if some ancient architect did not push the envelope. And these architects today must be respected for their talent. Get some books, download some photos of the Deconstructionist style and try to fulfill a design program in this style. If it's so easy and without merit, post your deconstructionist designs for comparative review. I think you will soon realize how difficult and how talented some of these architects really are. Right or wrong Gehry is quit good at this style.

Deconstructionism itself good or bad must be respected for pushing the theoretical envelope. We live in world today with massive human suffering, collapsing ecosystems, etc... no one can argue our world is quite out of balance. And some scientists say we are beyond the tipping point and the future looks quite grim for billions of humans as natural systems respond to overshoot and then collapse. At the same time technology is expanding into realms beyond imagination a few generations ago...nanotechnology, genetic engineering, AI, etc. We must somehow develop new insights and understandings into man's relationship with nature; and again right or wrong Deconstructionism must be admired for at least trying.

Creation is a twofold process: proposal and disposal, opportunity seeking and decision making, etc. I suspect the critical writer is not an architect which brings me to the reason of this post and the only thing I may have to personally add.

What bothers most about the entire spectrum of architects, engineers and planners is that all the professions which create mans physical environment are not coordinated; for instance as the medical profession is. I yearn for the day when every student who embarks upon one of these careers must take the same foundation to begin with, then over time branch out into specialties. This would foster mutual respect, better role definition and possibly much better end results. I have met way too many engineers that have no idea what an architect is trying to do, I have met too many planners that have no idea that planning evolved out and is still highly related to landscape architecture, too many designs that ignore the behavioral sciences, etc. All this I believe stems from the various professions being taught in different schools, using different theories and different ideals. No wonder our built environment is so discoordinated and so far below it's potential to support life and growth of humanity in some sustainable fashion.

There are undeniably a lot of very smart talented people involved with creation of the physical environment, for whatever its worth I feel most of its unrealized potential stems from this problem of dis-coordination between all the professions involved with environmental design.

I hope some day that all makers of the built environment can be better coordinated somehow.

Avant Gardism Versus Humanism

"We would still be living in caves, if some ancient architect did not push the envelope."

You have quite a distorted view of the history of building. Actually, vernicular building existed for thousands of years before there were any architects. You should check out the striking vernacular designs in the old book "Architecture Without Architects."

Christopher Alexander has show than vernacular architecture and urbanism are based on what he calls "patterns" that create appealing places. Traditional architecture also made use of these patterns, since architects before the modern period did not get very far unless they designed buildings that appealed to their clients.

The industrial revolution broke these patterns, and modernist architects took advantage of that rupture to create the idea of the great genius architect who "pushes the envelope" and who dictates how people should live. Modernism is based on the idea that ordinary people are incompetent to make decisions about their own environment, and that contempt for ordinary people is echoed in your idea that we would still be living in caves without architects. Needless to say, these genius architects built many hideous, inhuman places, such as America's 1950s and 1960s housing projects.

Today, architecture is divided into two schools, which I call the avant gardists and the humanists.

Avant gardists carry modernism to an extreme, designing buildings that are striking artistic statements without caring whether they work for people.

Humanists try to learn from vernacular and traditional architecture how to design buildings that work for people.

It is hard to design a deconstructionist building that is a striking artistic statement, as you say. But it is even harder to design a building that is a striking artistic statement and that also works in human terms, as great architects did before the rise of modernism.

The humanists now dominate urban design. The New Urbanism has swept away modernist urbanism. There are occasional exceptions - Frank Gehry is still coming up with anti-urban garbage like Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, and Zaha Hadid is still doing designs that look very much like 1950s housing projects - but traditional urbanism that tries to create good places for people dominates the field.

It is only a matter of time before people see that the avant-gardist emperor also has no clothes in the case of architecture, as they already have in the case of urbanism.

You would do well to broaden your horizon by looking beyond the current avant-gardist dogmas. I suggest you read my chapter "Avant Gardism Versus Humanism" at http://www.preservenet.com/archtime/ArchTime.html#ch3.

"We live in world today with massive human suffering, collapsing ecosystems, etc... "

Yes, but the neo-traditional architects and urbanists are the ones who are doing something about that. Frank Gehry's style has done nothing to address the environmental crisis. The New Urbanists' style has addressed the environmental crisis, and many environmental groups are working to spread its principles. How many environmental groups are working to spread Frank Gehry's principles?

Charles Siegel

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