Everyone at the P/A awards dinner in New York last month was talking about the fire at Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV complex in Beijing. The event had occurred just the night before, and people were passing around their BlackBerries and iPhones, showing off Photoshopped pictures of Godzilla and the Transformers swarming around the burning Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The initial spark came from Chinese New Year fireworks, and many in that country saw the resulting conflagration as an alarmingly inauspicious way to begin the Year of the Ox.
Back in Manhattan, the P/A partygoers interpreted the blaze in an equally dark, if architecture-centric way—as symbolizing the collapse of starchitecture and the blockbuster building. I was blown away to witness a roomful of celebrated architects discussing in all earnestness the failings of celebrity architecture. Clearly, the profession’s value system is undergoing an epochal shift, with at least one positive result: an increasingly widespread recognition of architecture as a collaborative endeavor, not simply the result of a singular creative vision. But the profession still needs role models. Who can we look up to, if not our stars?
Of all the design stars who shined in the ’90s and early ’00s, two at least stand out as heroes for today: Sam Mockbee, who died in 2001, and whose important work at the Rural Studio continues; and Glenn Murcutt, the 2009 AIA Gold Medalist. History will remember them well, for prioritizing sustainability and the social good over self-aggrandizement and the big commission.
Opting out of the mainstream to help the needy is a profoundly noble act, but the world also needs Robin Hoods who can operate at a global, corporate scale. Alas, the path of virtue is long, arduous, and fraught with temptation, especially when that path cuts through places like Beverly Hills and Park Avenue. Witness William McDonough, the self-anointed prophet of sustainable design to the rich and powerful.
McDonough’s buildings, for all their green features, have never struck me as particularly well designed, but there’s no denying his marketing skills. Even these failed him when a bruising profile, “Green Guru Gone Wrong,” appeared in the November 2008 issue of Fast Company. Perhaps the most damning quote came from UC Berkeley’s Harrison Fraker:
Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office … McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done … I hate to see false myths perpetuated.
Hagiography is a dangerous business, so it is with some caution that I offer up one of my own heroes for general consumption: David Hovey, the wrongly overlooked architect of the 650-unit Old Orchard Woods condominiums in Skokie, Ill. (page 63). I’ve never met the man, but I came to admire his work during my tenure as curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Hovey attended IIT, and he teaches there now, and one look at his buildings makes the association clear. In a city that struggles to meet the high standards of its own architectural history, Hovey’s design sensibility is environmentally responsible, rigorously modernist, and quietly confident. He does not strive for the heroic statement, and in so doing attains something greater.
Hovey maintains quality not through self-aggrandizement or by grandstanding in the face of opposition, but through a business model that gives him control of capital and production. In other words, Hovey serves as his own developer and general contractor. He’s one architect who isn’t afraid of a balance sheet, or of getting his hands dirty. Now that’s heroic.