Leave Starchitects Alone

It’s time to abandon the buzz-word, which has become a partisan dog-whistle well outside its context in design.

Image Mario Anzuoni/AP
Frank Gehry (center) at the preview of "Frank Gehry," his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Mario Anzuoni/AP)

Last week, National Review issued its latest broadside against contemporary architecture. This is a recurring feature for the publication, one that pops up every few weeks under a different alarmist headline, with words like “awful,” “woeful,” “melee,” and “monstrosity.” The theme is reliably the same: Architectural elites are bad for America.

Architecture presents a special conundrum for conservative cultural critics. Just about everything that gets built involves an architect, meaning their work is less elective than the labor of art historians or modern choreographers—or any other profession that conservatives might decry and defund without shedding a tear. Architecture, as a field, cannot be written off so easily.

Important architecture tends to reflect a popular mandate. High design leans liberal, as it were: Museums, libraries, university buildings, performance halls, train stations, government centers, and so on usually serve the public good (often with public funding). So a whole lot of fine architecture is anathema to movement conservatism, programmatically. Not everything: Some of the finest buildings in the world are private projects driven by corporate ambition. And conservatives are invested in who and what gets memorialized and how.

This framework helps to explain why conservative critics love to hate the “starchitect.” It’s shorthand, a way of sorting the building arts into two categories—useful architecture that conservatives should approve and wasteful architecture that conservatives should disdain—without doing any of the real and difficult work of judging design.

“The ‘starchitect’ is almost always and everywhere the enemy of the public good,” Kevin D. Williamson writes, “but American public planners . . . have a terrible weakness for celebrity architects and public grandiosity.”

Williamson, who wrote National Review’s newest architectural missive, offers up Frank Gehry as the “definitional celebrity architect,” even as he heaps praise on 8 Spruce Street (New York by Gehry). Williamson describes the building—Gehry’s only skyscraper to date—as “an ornament to the New York skyline” and “a striking counterpart to such nearby landmarks as the Woolworth’s building.”

Those high marks would seem to suggest that Gehry’s earned his fame. In the same vein, you might admit into the ranks William Van Alen for designing the Chrysler Building or Frank Lloyd Wright for Fallingwater. In the most straightforward sense “star architect” describes anyone who’s left a lasting mark on the built environment. But fame or success or achievement isn’t what anyone means by the portmanteau, least of all writers at National Review. It’s been a derogatory knock since at least 2007, when Nicolai Ouroussoff, then the architecture critic for The New York Times, first took note of its spreading usage.

More recently, it has turned into something else. Today it is a more partisan slur.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, designed by Gehry. (Jacques Brinon/AP)

Williamson doesn’t condemn Gehry for any of the usual clichéd reasons, such as leaky roofs (as if Gehry’s buildings leak more than others) or the whole crumpled paper thing (a myth driven by a joke from The Simpsons). His approval of 8 Spruce Street suggests that he is at least willing to concede that Gehry has produced good work in his lifetime (if not outright masterpieces in the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao). In reality, architecture isn’t the subject of Williamson’s essay, which dwells on Emma Watson and Lena Dunham as much as on Gehry and Santiago Calatrava.

In Williamson’s framework, Gehry is specifically and maybe exclusively a starchitect for his design of the proposed ​Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. Williamson’s praise for 8 Spruce Street serves as contrast for his condemnation of the Ike Memorial, Gehry’s great disqualifying sin. That project has become a bête noir among conservative cultural critics, despite the fact that the design’s features are rather neoclassical, architecturally speaking—quiet for a Gehry and necessary given the site’s constraints. Conservative, even.

There are a couple of things going on here. One, it was no accident that people on the right came to uniformly distrust Gehry’s design. Richard Driehaus, a classical-architecture enthusiast and Chicago businessman, funded a lobbying campaign to oppose the design, even as Gehry went back to the drawing board time and again to adjust it to suit the concerns of the Eisenhower family. Catesby Leigh, a critic who has condemned Gehry’s memorial in National Review as recently as July, is the founding director of the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group funded in part by Driehaus to oppose the Eisenhower Memorial. The Washington Post’s George Will strafed so broadly with his barrage against Gehry that he also hit poor Frank Lloyd Wright (a “modernist and egotist”). In Congress, the efforts to block spending on the memorial (mostly symbolic at this early stage) have been driven by one committee staffer. That’s enough to say that the design has garnered opposition in Congress, though.

Fans coo over the Nova Shoes, designed by Zaha Hadid for United Nude, on view at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow in 2014. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Two, the fiery opposition to Gehry’s memorial design is ideological, not design oriented. It burns fiercely in conservative outlets, less so in mainstream publications or design journals. In his biography of Frank Gehry, Paul Goldberger notes that Gehry has felt stung by the lack of support from fellow architects or critics in the face of this sometimes blistering criticism. But critics writing in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times have received the Eisenhower Memorial design warmly enough. If their voices seem muted, it is only because they are being drowned out by a mob.

“Compromise and consensus are important when devising legislation, but they are a poor recipe for creating a memorial,” writes Witold Rybczynski. That’s sober and fair. But it doesn’t register for a shut-it-down chorus. Process doesn’t count.

Sometimes, the interests of architecture critics and conservative critics would appear to line up. Projects by Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, and Bjarke Ingels come to mind. When design critics unload on excessive architects qua “starchitects,” it’s for taking on bloated projects (Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub), sponsored content (Hadid’s shoes or Gehry’s jewelry), or commissions from authoritarian regimes (BIG’s Astana National Library in Kazakhstan or Hadid’s stadium for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar).

Barring Calatrava’s transit hub, though, none of these generate any heat in conservative media. Neither do programmatically neutral but high-octane corporate projects like Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino—which was designed by Norman Foster to look like an actual spaceship—or similar offices underway for Amazon, Samsung, Nvidia, Google, and (again) Apple. If starchitecture were still a meaningful term of criticism, then Silicon Valley might be a hotbed of it.

The Philharmonie de Paris, designed by Jean Nouvel, who ultimately had his name removed from the project over disagreements about its funding and construction. Nouvel’s name is near the top of any list of “starchitects.” (Charles Platiau/AP)

But the conservative pearl-clutching over starchitects is performed. It’s registered in bad faith. It’s at root an allergy to program, funding, public works, or intangibles that have nothing to do with the built environment. The objection to starchitects is dressed up in Culture Wars theatrics, meant to elicit partisan alignment around political identity in the face of difficult design questions.  

Expect to hear more about starchitects when work proceeds on the monument for the Adams family (honoring President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams, President John Quincy Adams, and the rest of the gang). The true Sturm und Drang will come, though, when the Obama Foundation names an architect for the Obama Presidential Library in South Chicago. It could be Jeanne Gang, it could be Robert A. M. Stern, it could be Richard Meier—hell, it could be Buckminster Fuller or Daniel Burnham or even Thomas Jefferson himself—but no matter which architect gets the nod to design the Obama Presidential Library, this person will be dismissed widely by the right as a starchitect. (The architect will not be an unknown, and the cost for the building will be millions. This is the way of important buildings at a time when construction costs are soaring. The starchitect smear is inevitable.)

This all-too-convenient form of prosecution distorts a debate that society should be having over design. Which architects working in the private sector should we entrust with works in the public realm, and how do we make that decision? Conservative voices are welcome and needed in this conversation. But be wary of a coded term meant to cut the debate short: starchitect.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.