Illustration: Michael Glenwood

Peter Eisenman, FAIA, the iconoclastic architect and teacher, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion recipient, thinks that architects have their priorities backwards. “In a time that we have a lot of star architects, we have few heroes,” he told a rapt audience at the 2015 AIA National Convention in Atlanta. “[These] form-makers,” he said, “tend to be capricious without a formal or critical heart.”

Whether you agree or disagree, Eisenman raises two good points. First, there’s a difference between making form, so to speak, and formalism. One is about product, one about process, and his argument is that only a process can lead to a credible work of architecture. The second point is that star status does not always denote design leadership. In his argument, the analogy is clear: Star architects (“starchitects”) are to mere form-makers as true heroes are to exegetical thinkers. (Less clear, however, is why calling someone a hero is any less capricious than balling up some modeling clay and calling it a building.) Nevertheless, the underlying question for our cynical age, with Internet altruists straining toward “upworthiness,”is: What is a hero anyway?

Self and Society
Morality connects all heroes and, by definition, heroes demonstrate good judgment, courage, and selflessness. The emphasis here is on “demonstrate.” Heroes are people of action, not just intention. They may personify Volksgeist and anchor nationalistic spirit and values—Thor, Marianne, Lincoln, and so on. Heroes may also be more personal and less obvious figures who deeply influence fewer people than their famous counterparts. In other words, you may struggle to name the last three Nobel Peace Prize recipients, but you can easily name the three most influential teachers in your life.

Heroism has also been framed by Carlyle, Marx, Nietzsche, Spencer, and a dozen other philosophers as part of a debate about the so-called Great Man theory, which centered on whether history is written by extraordinary individuals or by groups, and, indeed, whether extraordinary individuals are uniquely sovereign or merely products of their environments.

That said, the fact remains: Heroes are singular figures whom we celebrate, value, and need in order to make sense of the world. It’s why we put posters up on our walls; it’s why we put pictures in lockets; it’s why we erect statues; and it’s why we have commonly held standards of fortitude (Robert Peary at the North Pole), grace (Althea Gibson at Wimbledon), and achievement (Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik). Even the most vehement nihilists—those who troll the comments section of websites to lament the human condition—can point to one example of individual heroism that is, somehow, meaningful.

If morality connects heroes, and heroism is something we need as people, then identifying heroism in architecture is about identifying moral individuals who have acted justly and admirably. Architectural historians will remind you that morality and the enterprise of architecture are connected along a spectrum of intent and impact—that over time a building’s impact on its city can change as its function changes, or as the city changes around it. Social activists concerned with the built environment will tell you that design decisions have a direct impact on people, and that such an impact must be made humanely. Environmental activists will tell you that design decisions have a direct impact on local ecologies and regional conditions, and that such an impact must be made thoughtfully.

If there are heroes in architecture, then, they must understand that good intentions do not guarantee positive impacts, that the life cycle of a building is equal in importance to its design, and that one must balance humane decisions for the social good with thoughtful decisions for the environmental good. Because they are not, as it turns out, mutually exclusive realms of influence. The emphasis here again—as with the enduring definition of a hero—is on action, not just intention.

Eisenman would have us believe that heroes are in short supply and stars are all too abundant. Indeed, contemporary architecture is about more than the cult of personality or fame. If “hero” is too reverent a word, then identifying examples of heroism seems like an easier sell. So long as one is prepared to design adaptively, humanely, and thoughtfully, then the rest of us should be prepared to recognize that person’s heroism when she or he succeeds in making a positive impact. After all, lamenting a dearth of heroes is about as productive as grousing about too many starchitects.