Architects Trying Too Hard

Witold Rybczynski says that architects are trying too hard to build buildings that are attention-getting rather than going for timeless designs.

2 minute read

November 24, 2008, 2:00 PM PST

By Tim Halbur


"Perhaps the Bilbao effect should be called the Bilbao anomaly, for the iconic chemistry between the design of building, its image and the public turns out to be rather rare -- and somewhat mysterious. Herzog & de Meuron's design for Beijing's Olympic Stadium is ingenious, for example, but instead of the complex engineering it was the widely perceived image of a bird's nest (a nickname that did not originate with the architects) that cemented the building's international iconic status; the woven steel wrapper seemed to symbolize both China's ancient traditions and its rush to modernization. The so-called Water Cube, housing the Olympic pools, also became an iconic hit, although since the illuminated box is chiefly effective at night it is something of a one-trick pony, and it will be interesting to see how long the iconic effect lasts.

But for every Bird's Nest, there are scores of costly iconic failures, buildings that fail to spark the public's imagination. Of course, failed icons don't go away, which is a problem. Since the Bilbao effect teaches -- I believe mistakenly -- that unconventional architecture is a prerequisite for iconic status, clients have encouraged their architects to go to greater and greater lengths to design buildings that are unusual, surprising, even shocking. But the shock will inevitably wear off, and 100 years from now, all those iconic wannabes will resemble a cross between a theme park and the Las Vegas strip."

Monday, November 24, 2008 in Wall St. Journal

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