One of the most persistent complaints among architects concerns media attention to the so-called “stars.” The rap, a deep-seated unhappiness that so much attention is lavished on a very few, concerns the tiny sliver, perhaps 1 percent of all architects, who dominate the architectural airwaves. Why, the lament goes, do those familiar faces gobble up all the oxygen in the room and hog all the attention? Why do they get the plum jobs? Why not, the remarks imply, pick me?
Often their work seems willful or unrealistic, while your responsible work is bathed in regular, laborious effort to meet client needs or match excruciatingly tight budgets. They, it appears, inhabit a rarified realm of travertine and stainless steel, while your own projects may feel weighted down with the limits of concrete block. Repeated emphasis on individuals diminishes the role teamwork plays in contemporary practice; one-off, spectacular buildings draw attention away from careful urban planning. The list of complaints drones on, but it comes down to this: They get the glory, you do the work.
Historically, the star phenomenon is relatively new in America. After H.H. Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright enlarged the burgeoning tradition, self-righteously invoking the title “genius,” a term with roots in the Renaissance and that flourished in 19th-century Romanticism, which is incomparable for the purpose of self-aggrandizement: Who could argue with genius? Today, the media feeding frenzy deepens the trend, projecting a familiar litany of names and images onto our pages and screens. Always the same names.
Why? Truthfully, we have to admit, fame doesn’t occur by happenstance. The stars, our stars, operating at a high level of accomplishment, often possess qualities we admire, including real talent, application of effort, organizational ability, savvy, media friendliness, and intellectual acumen. In addition, often these architects bring a sense of courage that most of us lack—exploring ideas, testing new systems, voyaging first where most of us dare not go. In a sense, they are our explorers.
Consider those represented in this issue. Lord Norman Foster defines the type, with buildings around the world soaring vertically or horizontally, conceiving and creating structures that operate like animate laboratories, combining architecture, sociology, and biology. His work is capable of redirecting our thinking while offering clients and the larger public more comfortable, adaptable ways of living and working. Yet stars need not be flamboyant. Fumihiko Maki’s masterfully detailed and pared-down projects offer lessons in mannerly, urban restraint, rigorously detailed and consistently in harmony with their neighbors.
Santiago Calatrava, who has just unveiled his plans for New York’s new transit hub, continues to amaze and confound us with bold, expressive new forms that speak to us in an idiosyncratic voice, reflecting a consciousness both educated and individualistic. His urban projects, such as the opera house in Tenerife, often combine engineering prowess with artfulness, setting and memorably defining place. No one will forget the opera house, or Tenerife, again.
If you thought you had pegged Richard Meier, think again. This master of the Modern idiom continues to evolve as an architect. His Jubilee Church, a segmented spherical concrete structure, suggests new meaning for the term “building blocks.” Who might have expected these lyrical, curving forms from the master of the gridded block? The stars, it seems, can surprise and confound our preconceptions.
Not that we should diminish our concerns. All-too-human, the men and women occupying today’s architectural stardom cast different kinds of power, not all benign: Great stars can make bad buildings. At the best, as Cynthia Davidson proposed in this magazine [record, May 2003, page 144], fame, like a flame, attracts. The public remains fickle, as do we. Yet you have to admit: Some individuals among us consistently produce work worth examining, in these pages and in the broader media. Their work, when it succeeds, attracts attention by widening audiences for architecture with a type of gravitational pull that might seem planetary. Call them stars, or call them what you will.