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Autograph Architecture

Architect John Field believes that signature buildings by celebrity architects are destroying the urban fabric and our sense of community.
June 30, 2008, 5am PDT | John Field
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Photo: John FieldWe find ourselves living in an era of "autograph architecture"; sweeping, aggressive personal statement buildings that plaster the architect's vision across the urban skyline saying "Look at me!" The phenomenon of the celebrity architect is worldwide, and I believe it is fracturing any sense of community. And in America where the urban sense of place is usually weaker than its European roots, all sense of community is being lost.

From the start of the first colonies in America, emotional and physical security was found in being a part of a community. That sense of belonging lasted until the postwar 1950s, when growth began stretching development into cornfields and shopping centers were substituted for town squares. All this planning was based on the Federal highway building program and cars usually became the only mode of transport, replacing walking and decimating any sense of community life. Uses became segregated and exclusive, and a sense of isolation began creeping over the country.

Today, planners still ignore the pedestrian experience and neighborhoods and busy themselves with designing the form of the city. Planning departments call for high-rise accents in the urban fabric instead of looking for ways to make the streets a network of walkable and satisfying places. Few pedestrians count the number of floors above them, but everyone notices when they are enjoying a nice walk.

The making of architect media heroes is a new phenomenon. On the one hand such recognition is welcome and long overdue, and the problem isn't the quality of design. It is that the responsibility for creating urban communities for the future is seldom part of the starchitect's agenda. A mere 50 years ago, most architects would have been incredulous if you had told them that their name alone would raise millions of dollars for clients or be the difference between success and failure in leasing an office project. The number of famous architects in the world could be counted on one hand back then. But today the era of the celebrity architect is blooming worldwide. Architects' names are now even associated with retail household products like teapots, watches and lighting fixtures.

Today the phenomenon has taken hold so completely that it is beginning to fracture the fabric of our urban areas. The purity of "autograph architecture" is preserved by holding it away from its neighboring buildings with plazas to create room to be better admired. Shouldn't we ask ourselves why was it that Andrea Palladio could design a project as part of the fabric of the city in the 16th century without sacrificing his artistic integrity, and yet Mies Van der Rohe and many architects today have to have plazas isolating their designs, as if the surrounding riffraff of buildings would contaminate their jewels? Greater recognition of the importance of architecture should make better cities, but that's not possible when no building can be next to another.

Few of us would question that the needs of our growing population should be met by intensifying urban development rather than continual sprawl. And yet the buildings we are producing today resist becoming part of the fabric of our urban areas, and their resultant urban spaces have more to do with monument settings than outdoor rooms for daily life. Sometimes "public" space is almost a joke. Just ask yourself, would the forecourt of St. Peters be the same if it were on the roof of the basilica? Just because it is possible today, such an idea is still totally irrational and serves no urban purpose other than satisfying the planning code requirement for open space.

Obviously some sites for projects call for the isolated monument where the forms have more to do with sculpture than urbanity. But when we transfer the buildings-as-sculptural-monuments approach to designs for making cities denser, the forgotten human gets little benefit and no enhanced sense of community. Architecture can't escape that it still has a function beyond serving the developer, which is creating a part of the city aggregate. None of us would argue that Mendelsohns Potsdam hat factory -- shaped like a hat -- would look just as good in Union Square in San Francisco as it did standing alone. Is the design of street space and the search for a human experience that satisfies the sensory needs of human beings too uninteresting for our profession to be bothered? Are we not perhaps just producing with these sculpture monuments the Pruitt-Igoe-style projects of tomorrow? As our population grows, more and more Americans are going to live urban lives and need the real sense of neighborhood and community that architecture can give.

The serious challenge for the profession today is not how to make a city icon. It is to find ways to bring a satisfying humanity to an urban density to house our growing population. The human animal is remarkably unregimented, with an amazing range of sensory receivers that need to be nourished, or our designs will yield only alienation for those who live there, no matter how proud we are of our singular artistic achievements.

Josef Albers, the noted Bauhaus artist and color theorist, pointed out that an interrupted pattern is far more powerful than a non-patterned overall complexity. In the same way, good cities need carefully designed background buildings that together can generate satisfying urban spaces, with the occasional signature building that will enhance and often give identity to a neighborhood. Relying only on those signature structures to create a satisfying human experience will leave us isolated and wanting.


John Field, FAIA John Field is a founding partner and Retired Chairman of the Board of San Francisco's Field Paoli Architects. John received a Master of Architecture degree from Yale University and is recognized as one of the country's premier designers of urban in-fill retail, institutional and residential projects.Urban projects under his direction were Paseo Nuevo Downtown Redevelopment in Santa Barbara, 1000 Van Ness Entertainment/mixed-use Center in San Francisco and the Downtown Master Plan, and Retail Redevelopment in East Grand Forks, Minnesota.

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