Are Starchitects Resistant to Environmentalism + Humanitarianism?

LA Times

There’s an opinion piece by Christopher Hawthorne in the LA Times about the potential absence of star architects, lazily referred to as ‘starchitects’, from the realm of humanitarian architecture.  When I say humanitarian architecture, I’m referring to such causes as environmentalism, poverty, or illness, etc.  Hawthorne laments the lack of a green Rem Koolhaus, smacking on about Peter Eisenman as the villain of green and Zaha Hadid as careless of anything other than her legacy.  To quote:

But it also means that the leaders of this new movement, who tend to be rather bland as media personalities, are overshadowed by older architects and designers far less interested in sustainability or fighting poverty — and far more experienced at attracting attention and wielding celebrity. In the last 20 years, the most appealing figures in the profession have cultivated a decidedly apolitical, even defiantly cynical outlook…

Among the green generation, who is heading up the charge? Well, nobody, really. This may be the first movement in architectural history whose followers are more famous than its leaders. Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Orlando Bloom are well-known fans of green design. Among green designers, on the other hand, we have the ambitiously principled (read: sorta vanilla) Cameron Sinclair, who leads Architecture for Humanity; the great, greatly mustachioed and soft-spoken Shigeru Ban; and William McDonough, who is beginning to project an Andy Rooney vibe.

Now, for my own thoughts…I’m not an architect, so I’ll let the pros chime in, but I will speak to the issue from the perspective of a developer or business owner that retains an architect for a project.  First, isn’t the person paying the commission the one fueling the star architect ego, egos that brazenly design with no thought for the world that the structure will occupy?  Doesn’t money dictate direction?  If I want a green building, and it’s my money, I’ll find the right person for the job.  Don’t these people have a grand stage because it’s been given to them?  Second, it seems like the leaders of the green movement aren’t singular figures, but they’re large firms such as SOM, Foster + Partners, FXFOWLE Architects, and Murphy/Jahn Architects.  It seems like it takes a village to raise a humanitarian building, not an individual. 

But, is this a contradiction with the architectural archetype in Howard Roark.  Are these starchitects just modern day Roarks?  But wouldn’t Roark try to use new materials and methods like green building + low-income architecture, etc.?  Matter of fact, as I recall, Roark did build a low-income project.  Tell me what you think…

  • maxmsf

    Interesting angle. In a way I sort of like these guys not being in the picture- a lot of them seem like… pricks. But on the other hand, it’s a little disappointing, as it always is, when someone is in the perfect position to make a difference, and doesn’t. While I’ve always admired the work of these guys, especially Gehry, I like our “stars,” and I think they’ll get more prominent. I think of Eric Freed, David Arkin, David Hertz, of course McDonough, and a couple of other up-and-comers as the front-runners.

  • Philip Proefrock

    I agree with maxmsf that there are some out there already. There are good designers who are doing green work, but it’s taking time to develop a body of work that shows a green streak.

    Getting work as an architect is hard enough, and far too man people still see green as something of an expensive dalliance. Until there are more clients looking for it, green is going to remain a sidelight.

    Let me add to the list: Glenn Murcutt, Sim van der Ryn, and Ed Mazria

  • Preston

    Thanks for the thought-out comments. Just a side note, I noticed that Freed, Mazria, and Sim van der Ryn will be at West Coast Green in September.

    I think the architects are there and they’re just going to get more and more prominent.

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