“Starchitects” like Frank Gehry do not build for people — they build to shock.
The controversy over Frank Gehry’s design for a “memorial park” to President Eisenhower—a vast array of hideous metal walls, covered with reflections on the President’s humble origins, and mutilating (should it be built) an important public area of the capital city—has alerted Americans to the difficulty, in modern conditions, of obtaining an appropriate monument. Simple gravestones commemorate private people, and are inscribed with words of love from the few who will seriously miss them. Monuments, however, do not only commemorate public figures who have deserved well of the nation. They commemorate the nation, raise it above the land on which it is planted, and express an idea of public duty and public achievement in which everyone can share. Their meaning is not “he” or “she” but “we.” And the successful monument does not stand out as a defiance of the surrounding order, but endorses it and adds to its grace and dignity.
Washington has many such monuments. But they belong (for the most part) to another era, when architects and sculptors were prepared humbly to retire behind their own creations, so as to respect the city and its meaning. In proposing Gehry as the architect of the Eisenhower memorial, however, Washington has opted for another and newer conception of the architect’s role, and it is important to understand this if we are to grasp the extent and seriousness of their mistake. The Eisenhower family has objected to the plans on the grounds that the resulting collection of screens and narratives seem designed to belittle the former president, to cut him down to size, to redesign him as the barefoot boy who looked in wonder on the high office that miraculously came his way. But this belittling of the subject is exactly what the monument intends. By belittling the President the memorial would exalt its architect. And the true subject of his memorial park, like the true subject of every building that Gehry has ever built, would be Gehry.
This, it seems to me, shows us the reason why monuments are these days so hard to commission, and so invariably disappointing. Architects, who once were servants of the people who employed them, and conscious contributors to a shared public space, have rebranded themselves as self-expressive artists, whose works are not designed to fit in to a prior urban fabric, but to stand out as tributes to the creative urge that gave rise to them. Their meaning is not “we” but “I,” and the “I” in question gets bigger with every new design.
Gehry belongs to a small and exclusive club of “starchitects,” who specialize in designing buildings that stand out from their surroundings, so as to shock the passerby and become causes célèbres. They thrive on controversy, since it enables them to posture as original artists in a world of ignorant philistines. And their contempt for ordinary opinion is amplified by all attempts to prevent them from achieving their primary purpose, which is to scatter our cities with blemishes that bear their unmistakable trademark. Most of these starchitects—Daniel Libeskind, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas—have equipped themselves with a store of pretentious gobbledygook, with which to explain their genius to those who are otherwise unable to perceive it. And when people are spending public money they will be easily influenced by gobbledygook that flatters them into believing that they are spending it on some original and world-changing masterpiece.
The most important feature of a Gehry “masterpiece,” like the absurdly costly Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, is that it “challenges” the surrounding order. Gehry does not build for people, but sculpts a space for his own expressive ends. You see this clearly in his Stata Center at MIT, a building that takes the old ideas of wall and window and holds them up to ridicule, to create a kind of collapsed caricature of a building, which is already springing leaks and cracking at the joints. In a striking monograph, Architecture of the Absurd, John Silber, former president of Boston University, details all the faults of the building, including its enormous cost overrun, and the expense of maintaining it.
But by far the most telling criticism is one that can be leveled at all the starchitects, who adopt the same a priori approach to construction as Gehry, and also the same self-image of themselves as revolutionary geniuses. Gehry decided that, since the Stata building was to house the high-powered researchers that MIT collects, and bring them together in a single space, he should design an interior that encouraged them to interact, to share their ideas, to amplify each other’s creativity by throwing concepts like footballs from room to room. So he got rid of inner walls, made all boundaries transparent, opened everything out in spaces that are made stark and bleak by the childish supermarket colors that shout from the open corridors.
This kind of a priori thinking, by an architect who has never troubled to observe another member of his species, recalls Le Corbusier’s plan for a hospital in Venice, in which there would be no windows, and all doors would open inward, since this would further the utter tranquility from which (according to the architect) convalescence springs. In fact researchers need walls, privacy, solitude if they are ever to produce the ideas that they can then bounce off their colleagues, just as invalids need light, air, and a view of the life outside, if ever they are to be motivated to get better. The Stata Center therefore fulfils no function as well as its primary one, which is to draw attention to the person who created it.
Unfortunately, because we live in a celebrity culture, this habit of megalomania seems to pay off. City fathers and public bodies everywhere, faced with the need to commission a public monument, will turn to the starchitects, sure that in this way they will not be branded as philistines by the critics, and will be able to fall back on a host of “expert” opinions should the general public express dismay at their choice. And the more important the project, the more likely it is that it will be put in the hands of a starchitect, who will ensure that it stands out from its surroundings and, if possible, reduces them to absurdity, so as the better to draw attention to itself.
Recently I spent a few days in Budapest, a city that is full of monuments. In every park some bearded gentleman stands serenely on a plinth, testifying to the worth of Hungarian poetry, to the beauty of Hungarian music, to the sacrifices made in some great Hungarian cause. The monuments include bas-relief, incorporated into the corner of some building, showing soldiers advancing into war, or patriotic faces against a background flag. They include classical colonnades linking buildings across the edge of a park, and gateways lending dignity to a public street. None stands out, none is designed to draw attention to itself. On the contrary, all attention comes from the monuments, onto the city and the people who live and move within their sight. They are like the eyes of a father, resting on his children at play. They are full of the joy of belonging, and convey a serene acceptance of death in the national cause. Such monuments are the very opposite of the one proposed by Gehry. Their sculptors and architects are forgotten, their forms and materials are the forms and materials from which the city around them is built. And they retire into their corners as though in acknowledgement that their work has been done.
Now I firmly believe that there are architects and sculptors who share that conception of the monument. For it is natural to all patriotic people to wish for their past to be present in the city, but in the way that memories are—as a shared recognition that we owe gratitude to those who went before us, and must incorporate them into our lives while respecting their dignity and acknowledging their part in the national life. We must begin to look for those more modest architects and sculptors, and to reject the celebrity cult on which the great egos rely for their commissions. For monuments should be built by people who have no desire to draw attention to themselves, who are happy to hide behind their creations, and to build things that belong where they stand. It looks increasingly likely that the mistake made in Washington will be rectified by Congress. But let us hope that it will be the occasion to rectify a far greater mistake, which is that of treating architecture as the expression of the architect’s individual vision, rather than a contribution to our collective home.
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