All That is Vanity
OK, are you ready for it? Wait, take your time, think about it—what is the most important building of the last few decades? What building captured the popular imagination and demonstrated the new power of computer technology to shape structures? What building marked the transformation of culture from enlightenment and refuge to attraction, entertainment, and spectacle? I know, I know, it’s hard, but, yes, you are right, that would have to be ... the Bilbao Guggenheim.
Vanity Fair's filled-out surveys. Photo: Courtesy of Vanity Fair.
This is the utterly unsurprising result of Vanity Fair’s survey of 52 movers and shakers (well, mainly well-known architects and deans of architecture schools). The magazine, which itself straddles the edge between thoughtful opinion, investigation, fashion, the star system, and trend-watching, asked them, “What is the most important piece of architecture built since 1980?” Frank Gehry’s design won the most amount of votes, 28, by far. The runner-up was Renzo Piano’s De Menil Museum in Houston, though by a far pace (it got 11 votes), affirming the infamous “Bilbao Effect.”
Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer mined the highly varied results (the next runner-up was the Vals Thermal Baths, by Peter Zumthor, which received nine votes) to note some trends. Gehry design, he writes, came out of Postmodernism’s revolt against the blandness of late modernism, but also surfed on our hunger for recognizable images. Piano built up a highly successful practice by taming Postmodernism’s humanist additions and abstracting them into a generic modernist language. He did so more successfully than his former partner, Richard Rogers, (though I still prefer Rogers' expressive and experimental buildings on the whole) and the other Lord of High Tech, Norman Foster. Though both Gehry and Piano claim that the contrast this sets up between expressive form-making and minimalist structuralism is false, it is hard to get away from seeing these as the two attractors to which most “high design” gravitates.
Tyrnauer can’t make as clear of a sense of what comes after, which are the architects who both made the list and seem to be ready to take on the world in this century. These are, according to Vanity Fair, Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas, with supporting roles by the likes of Toyo Ito, Diller & Scofidio, and Tadao Ando. It is hard to quibble with this list, though I wonder, as any second-guesser would, about omissions such as Kazuo Sejima, MVRDV, and David Chipperfield, to name just a few.
Despite the magazine’s attempt to be fair to all styles by including a few hardened neo-classicists in their list of experts, that strain of conservatism (I leave it up to you whether you want to think of that term in its root form, as in conserving the environment or traditions, or with all its political connotations), is notably absent from the list. Then again, its most forceful advocates, such as Yale University dean Robert A.M. Stern, are remarkably absent from the list of experts.
With such exceptions, this list makes sense to me. It does not judge quality, but importance, and that is as much a factor of a building’s ability to strike a chord within the symphony of competing messages that make up our popular culture as it is of any intrinsic quality. By asking “experts," Vanity Fair did affirm the chattering class’ prejudices, but I do think that people who spend that much time looking at, thinking about, teaching, and making architecture have a fairly good sense of what works and what doesn’t, both as a building and as a cultural icon. The list also tracks with my own sense that architecture these days is about making such icons, about reductive minimalism, about collaging together culture into compacted complexity, about expressive uses of technology, and about moments of sensuality and strangeness opening up within our increasingly homogenized human environments.
Beyond that observation, the Vanity Fair piece also affirms, in the sheer length of the article and the amount of time that went into this survey, that we think of buildings as important players in the culture games. I would argue that this is both a triumph, as we can no longer say that good (in terms of its ability to “play the game”) architecture is not appreciated by the general public, and a problem, as it reduces the discipline to the creation of certain focal artifacts that are then copied in denuded form all around the world. On the other hand, how is that different from the ways in which Palladio reached the farthest reaches of suburbia and Frank Lloyd Wright created a Prairie Style?
This all might be vanity, subject to fashion, fleeting and ephemeral, but one fact remains: this is a list of terrific buildings, each one of which has had a major impact and happens to produce wonderful experiences that give me hope that architecture can produce, if only in a few examples around the world, alternative to blandness and mindlessness of most of our daily environments.