Beyond Buildings


The Difference: Architecture and Criticism (Again)

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Who is the true "author" of a work of architecture? Should we even use such a word, which comes from writing and not the organization of physical and visual material? Is our culture, including the world of architecture, too obsessed with the hero creator? Should that creator be able to control every aspect of her or his creation? I raised some of these issues a few months ago in noting Ole Scheeren’s departure from OMA, and again a week ago in discussing the notion of control over a work of art. The first piece elicited virtually no response, while the second sent a dozen people scribbling furiously that I had no idea of what architecture or building was.

Now an article by LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne in the Harvard Design Review treats the Koolhaas-OMA-Scheeren case in greater depth. “Credit,” he writes, “in architecture, is a pendulum, and it is always swinging either away from or toward the idea that great buildings are produced by individual geniuses working in relative isolation. For much of the last decade, of course, that pendulum seemed to redouble its speed and practically race toward the genius pole.” I am not quite so sure that the swing has been that fast or unprecedented, as we certainly have seen the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, and Philip Johnson on the cover of Time Magazine before. The difference, of course, is that we don’t rely on Time to define our heroes anymore. Everyone is a star for 15 minutes, or at least for 15 megabytes, and that means their work is defined by the ease by which it can be recognized and disseminated in the much faster and more fragmented media through which the general public receives architecture today.


Hawthorne recalls his experiences with Koolhaas, who in the critic’s experience struggles to give credit, while at the same time plays the media game to perfection—a point I also made. He notes Gehry fostering myths about himself as an enfant terrible poking holes in his house so he would have more light while he shaved, and notes Thom Mayne marking up his reviews. These are architects, in other words, who are trying to control the ways in which their work is perceived, and how they are credited, and it is difficult to find fault with that. They are trying to make something out of their buildings, something that has a story, a point, and therefore a cultural meaning.

Moreover, as Hawthorne points out, “we lose something by rejecting the genius-architect theory altogether.” I concur completely with the example he uses, that of the late Charles Moore helping offices around the country produce fascinating and sometimes fantastic buildings and spaces, while the successor firms have failed to create anything that I, or Hawthorne, think rises above the ordinary. He then trots out the analogy to the film director, which, starting in the 1960s, replaced the then-popular model of the symphony conductor as a favorite way of describing the work of an architect. The architect and the film director both provide vision and coherence, as well as the ability to get something done, but they cannot produce anything without their editors, set designers, cinematographers, best boys, scriptwriters and actors.  


This is true enough, and Hawthorne notes the emergence of the “auteur theory” of architecture, as well as the resistance to that idea by the critic Pauline Kael as the model for the current debate about the status of the architect. In that, also, I think he is largely correct. I would only add that there is another dimension at work in the making of architecture, which Hawthorne does not mention: Architecture is about building, and building is a technical and economic act, harboring resources into a coherent framework and inserting itself not necessarily into (popular) culture, but into socio-economic reality and everyday life. Somewhere in that act a cultural phenomenon called architecture emerges out of the act of building, and it is that phenomenon that both performs a critical or catalytic role in our society—this is the mark of the architect who is not just a good business person, organizer, and constructor.

To Hawthorne, and to those who have commented that I do not understand the nitty-gritty of making buildings, I would say: it is in that act of transformation that the genius, the hubris, the signature, the difference lays.  It is here that we must look for what makes architecture not building, but about building, and it is here that we must start to critique architecture.  Buildings must work, on every level.  Architecture must be about that work, must open up that work, must frame it, must make it an active part of what it means to be a human being.

Hawthorne includes a telling anecdote: Walking through a building OMA had designed with the press, Koolhaas treated one of his partners as the lead, until he told her to check on the fact that an escalator was not working. At that moment he demoted (or promoted, depending on how you see it) her from somebody who was capable of a cultural act to an administrator of technical details, and took over the critique of the building himself. It was at that moment that he asserted himself as architect, and it is at that moment that we must start a critique of his role, his achievements and the question of what makes architecture.

One last comment: Hawthorne blames his editor for burying Scheeren’s name in an article he wrote, and complains about the constraints of working for a newspaper. I would suggest that criticism, like architecture, is also not possible without collaboration. Good editors and page designers, publishers and copy-editors, are as important to the construction of a critique as the genius author.



Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:29 PM Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    What is interesting is that Rem Koolhas-OMA are having so many problems with partners leaving and who-made-what and name-that-building (Prince-Ramus first, now Ole Scheeren) Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano or Rafael Vinoly do not have those issues: their buildings are "theirs" only, even if a whole 150-person firm designed them. There is only *one* name attached to their creations. Koolhas has lost his New York office and now his Beijing office. Just why can't he "control" OMA?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:09 PM Friday, July 09, 2010

    I believe the critic's role is greatly diminished with the absence of starchitects. If the cult of personality is no more, I'm all for it if it improves the lot of work the rest of us designers have to work with.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:33 AM Friday, July 09, 2010

    No architect single-handedly develops all of the design details od major buildings. A successful project requires MANY talented people resolving millions of design issues for every single building component, from skin and glazing to engineering systems. All of us in the profession know is just the media who allow the 'starchitect' system for publicity purposes. Are some people more 'talented' than others? Sure, but most of the 'top names' today are just hype (think 'Zaha Hadid').

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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.