The Best Buildings from Three Decades?
Le Corbusier, Saint-Pierre church, Firminy, France. Could a 1963 design be the most significant building of the 21st century?
Like David Letterman, or John Cusack in High Fidelity, I loves me a good list. So, of course I’m fascinated by Vanity Fair’s current issue, which features what the magazine proclaims as the 21 “greatest buildings of the last 30 years.”
“We asked the world’s leading architects, critics, and deans of architecture schools two questions: What are the five most important buildings, bridges, or monuments constructed since 1980, and what is the greatest work of architecture thus far in the 21st century?” The editors requested responses from 90 people, and 52 responded, including 11 Pritzker Architecture Prize winners, the deans of eight major architecture schools, and some journalists and critics. (Paul Goldberger reportedly picked more of the top-rated buildings than anyone else. Does this make him the keenest observer?)
A statistician would have a field day reviewing the bell curve of results: 52 lists produced some 215 nominations (out of a possible 260), revealing little consensus among the respondents. Only a dozen projects received more than a few nominations, and most got only one. The huge exception is the top choice, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, which got 28 votes, nearly three times as many as the second placer, Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection, which received 10.
As with any list, what’s missing says as much as what’s not. There are no houses, suggesting a preference for monumentality. And there’s a conspicuous shortage of exemplary green buildings. Even the few examples from Piano and Foster are not their most environmentally ambitious work. Do architects today prefer the older work of these architects to their more recent and more environmentally responsive work, such as Piano’s Tjibaou Center or Foster’s London City Hall?
In many ways, it’s a decidedly old-school list, which may be partly due to the ages of the respondents (mostly over 55, I’m guessing from a quick glance at the names), and since many of the architects surveyed have projects on the list (and voted for themselves), it’s a bit of a self-selected group. Buildings completed in the '80s and '90s garnered about 80 votes, evenly divided between the two decades, while projects after 2000 received only 16. Herzog & de Meuron’s Birds Nest stadium in Beijing got only three votes in the “since 1980” category but seven (the most) for best of the 21st century, so four of those voters believe that the single best building of the past decade doesn’t measure up against the five best from either of the previous two decades.
The most telling item might be this: Le Corbusier’s Saint-Pierre church in Firminy, France, built posthumously four years ago, received the second highest number of votes as the most significant work of this century—even though it was designed in the middle of the previous century. (It was Peter Eisenman’s only nomination in either list.) Apparently, today’s experts are nostalgic for yesterday’s icons.