Beyond Buildings


RMJM and the Problem of the Alphabet Soup

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It is with crocodile tears that I keep up with the continuing travails at RMJM. One of those architecture firms that eats other practices, it is now in deep trouble. Many of its employees have not been paid for months, according to reports, and it has lost some of its more high-profile commissions, such as the Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg, Russia.


RMJM design for Gazprom Tower


It couldn't happen to a nicer firm. I would be hard pressed to think of a single building the firm has produced that has made a contribution to our world. Their last big move was to snatch up Will Alsop, whose work has also marred many a city, from the clutches of his own firm's ignominious bankruptcy. The Gazprom Tower would have been an abomination. I feel very sorry for the thousands of employees who may be stranded by this whole debacle (though the founding family says they are pumping millions into the firm, which gives you an idea of how many more millions they took out of it), but nevertheless—good riddance.


RMJM is one of the firms that thrived on the combination of design and construction technology that makes it easier and cheaper to make anything anywhere, and a kind of image-driven, thin veneer of late Postmodernism that tries to sell profitable bulk with colored glass and angles. At least the last generation of multinational design firms, such as Kohn Pedersen Fox or Foster Associates, occasionally produced buildings of intrinsic worth and appropriateness, though they also plunked down their share of clunkers in unsuspecting provincial capitals around the world. Firms such as RMJM, Aedas, or AECOM can barely manage to produce something that is not completely generic, thin, and cheaply constructed.


A lot of critics continue to moan and groan about the excesses of so-called "starchitects." I have said and will continue to contend that they are not the problem. They may produce mistakes or less than successful designs, but at least they are, on the whole, good designers. It is the manner in which the alphabet soup of global design firms copy their designs, suck the life and logic out of them, and sell them around the world that is the real problem.


There is, as always, hope. Firms such as Aedas shelter smaller studios, such as that run by Andrew Bromberg in Hong Kong, where good work is produced. The financial logic that led to the creation of these Death Stars of Design may have run its course, leaving the field more open to mobile young designers and local practitioners. So RIP, RMJM, ASAP. I look forward to better architecture.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.