The Curious Anonymity of Architecture

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Josh Stephens's picture
If Donald Trump built so much as a birdhouse, I'd expect him to put his name on it. 
That's why I'm not the least bit surprised that The Donald affixed T-R-U-M-P in 20-foot-high letters, for all of Chicago to see, to his new Trump International Hotel and Tower. Somehow, one of the world's most monumental bloviators caught Mayor Rham Emmanuel, the City Council, and the entire staff of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development unawaresChicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who is no fan of the sign, blames "a lack of sophisticated design guidelines as well as the teeth to enforce them." 
They're now annoyed that Trump's name now gets to compete with the spires of the Wrigley building and the curves of Marina City Towers. 
Too bad. To paraphrase Jon Stewart: it's Donald Trump. What did they expect?
While Trump may be a particularly predictable example, the fact is that developers put names and signs all over their buildings. Some go the egotism route and name buildings after themselves. Others contrive heroic names, as if their buildings are bit characters in Game of Thrones. And, of course, plenty simply sell their crowns to the highest bidder. That's an old game, and it's all well and good as long as a city deems the signs to be in good taste. 
The kerfuffle in Chicago indirectly raises what should be a far more benign question about signage and identity, not about the funders of buildings, but about the designers of buildings. 
Let's consider the obvious: 
  • Painters sign their canvases. 
  • Writers, actors, and directors (among others) get their names in movie credits. 
  • Bands are synonymous with their songs, just as composers are with their symphonies. 
  • Every theatergoer gets a Playbill identifying playwrights, directors, and choreographers.
  • Authors' names often appear bigger than their respective titles on book covers. 
  • Photographers get credits. Even journalists get bylines.  
And yet, to the naive viewer, the world's most famous architect could be more anonymous than some cub photographer on his second day at work. 
Why don't architects get to put their names on buildings? Say what you will about egoism, but it's hard to deny that architects (and architecture firms) deserve as least as much recognition as any other artist or craftsperson does. I've visited countless buildings that I found interesting or attractive (or ghastly) and could do nothing but wonder about the minds from whom they sprung. 
Of course, some buildings' masterminds are obvious. But forget about starchitects. Everyone who's remotely inclined to care about Frank Gehry knows a Gehry building when he or she sees one. I'm not particularly interested in inflating his reputation. (Even so, it's all the more baffling that some of the biggest egos in the field don't insist on even the most modest acknowledgment.)
I'm not suggesting that architects put their names in lights or that they have to hang over the Chicago River. But how about a nice plaque in the lobby, or to the side of the front door? Maybe an inscribed cornerstone or paver? Or even a cool video-art display?
Such "signatures" might not delight the masses, either, but they'd gratify architecture nerds, give architects a point of pride (and, possibly, new business), and give due credit to a noble profession. We might even get better designs: wouldn't you try a little bit harder if your name was going to be on display? And, to developers' sure delight, these would cost next to nothing and would offend no one. 
For the record, the Trump project was designed by a team led by Adrian Smith (he being most famous for Dubai's Burj Khalifa). Maybe Trump will give him a plaque? 
Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report ( and former editor of The Planning Report (


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