It is time for a changing of the guard. The naming of Joshua Prince-Ramus’ firm REX to replace Frank O. Gehry & Associates as the designer of the performing arts center at Ground Zero follows Bjarke Ingels Group’s takeover from Lord Foster of the tower for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation next door. It makes you forget the battles of the titans who once fought for the right to put their respective stamps on the site and then either didn’t get the nod or, when they did—like SOM, Daniel Libeskind, AIA; Fumihiko Maki, Hon. FAIA; and Santiago Calatrava, FAIA—failed utterly and at a great cost, both to the urban environment and to taxpayers.
Then there is the Chicago Architecture Biennale, which several critics noted presents a roster of work by architects who, though not exactly unknown, are of such caliber that the Brits among them have not yet been knighted and none of them have designed anything much bigger than a housing project. And, let’s not forget the naming of Benjamin Prosky, who has guided Harvard’s publications for the last four years after doing the same at Columbia University, as Executive Director of the New York AIA. He joins the likes of David van der Leer, whom I first met as Steven Holl Architects' PR person (I am sure the title was loftier and he certainly was no flack), and who is now unfurling interesting new programming as head of the Van Alen Institute.
For a critic who grew up with the “Generation of ‘68”—who were known for burning flags (Coop Himmelb(l)au), restaging works of art as performance art (Diller + Scofidio), and being seen as unschooled California surfer types (yes, that was what they thought of Frank Gehry, FAIA, back then)—and has since watched these radicals turn into the establishment, each with several hundred people working for them, it is nice to see a new group of designers get the big jobs and positions. Even better, as the Chicago event and, I hope, the biennale I am co-curating in Shenzhen (starting December 4) will show, there is at least one generation already behind them nipping at their heels.
On one level, none of this really matters. What we really care about is the work, and whether it makes our world better in every sense of the word. It is nice to be surprised by names you don’t know, and forms or images you don’t recognize, but it is even better when there is work that shows us new ways to address the pressing social, environmental, and, yes, aesthetic, issues that confront us through new ways of using the traditions and methods of architecture. It doesn’t matter if it is the old toughs still out there doing it (as many are) or young guns shooting for the stars.
And, the new stuff is not all good work. Like any old fogey, I have to resist the temptation to roll my eyes at much of the work at Chicago and elsewhere both because it seems so familiar and because the reuse of past designs—which is an inevitable and necessary part of architecture—now focuses on what was produced in the 1980s and 1990s, much of which itself was self-consciously about reuse: As in many parts of our culture, we are so meta that we are meta-meta, self-consciously citing citers who were self-consciously citing other citers with an irony that coils around serious purpose to swallow more attitude. I have to remind myself we are further away from the building of the Humana Building then its construction was from the Seagram Building: Postmodernism is now retro-postmodern. Meanwhile, we are seeing new clichés becoming commonplace, like the flipped corner and the undulating, paired blobs—and those forms were “invented” by the likes of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Greg Lynn, even as they are used and abused by the next generation.
I am both flattered and made to feel old when some of the new generation tell me me how influenced they were by some of my earlier writing, like Violated Perfection (Rizzoli, 1990—yes, I have been around that long) and Architecture Must Burn (Gingko Press, 2000). I am troubled when I see how few of the new generation are women working independently, but encouraged when I see how international this bunch is; in that sense, the appointment of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena as the first Latin American Director of the Venice Architecture Biennale is, as the appointment of the first Pope from that continent was, another landmark moment.
But, what encourages me most is exactly the meta-critical and socially engaged nature of most of the work. Almost all of the younger generation who are now coming to the fore work in tactical ways to open up and create more sustainable environments; they collaborate and converse in a way that puts the recent acerbic treatment of the Chicago event by Patrik Schumacher, as well as Francois Roche’s ridiculous response, to shame.
Here come the new bosses, just like the old bosses? Maybe, but I still believe this time it will be different, and that this generation of designers will, once they achieve the commissions and power they deserve, pick up where the last generation left off when they sold out and settled down. Here’s to the next avant garde, with fear, loathing, and a great deal of hope.
Speaking of the next generation: Several months ago I wrote
about the shelters our students design and build here at the Frank Lloyd Wright
School of Architecture at Taliesin. They have now launched a Kickstarter
campaign to be able to build these in the the future and to help ensure the
School's future. Please consider joining our effort.
This post has been updated. Alejandro Aravena is a Chilean architect. Pope Francis is Argentinian. ARCHITECT regrets the error.