Lauren Nassef

In announcing that Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the duo behind SANAA, had won the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the jury noted the firm’s “deceptively simple” design, imbued with “a much-appreciated straightforwardness, economy of means, and restraint” that “stands in direct contrast with the bombastic and rhetorical.” Sejima and Nishizawa may well deserve the award for their talent. But it seems they also won because, at least for the jury, SANAA embodies the supposed new ethos of architecture: the New Modesty.

Alternately called the New Puritanism or Radical Traditionalism, the movement is a recession-fueled reaction to the post-Bilbao era of high-tech, high-price, hypertrophied design. “Values are changing,” wrote London Times critic Tom Dyckhoff in late 2009, in response to Caruso St John Architect’s austere Nottingham Contemporary museum. “Two years ago you could propose a revolving skyscraper bedecked in golden columns and purple unicorns and be taken halfway seriously. Now, like long-haul flying, architectural excess is sniffed at with a disdain approaching distaste.”

Perhaps. But is the New Modesty really all that modest? No, because it assumes that the ideas swirling within the architectural profession define the world beyond it, that just because a bunch of designers and critics have grown tired of iconic structures, real estate developers and the public will follow suit, dooming our cities to a decade of SANAA’s unadorned boxes.

After all, who does Dyckhoff think is doing the sniffing? Certainly not the many who swooned, during a recession fueled by overleveraged debt, at the opening of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the very embodiment of excess. A reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, echoing thousands of blog posts and comments, called it “an exuberant architectural triumph.” The public loves a blockbuster, whether it’s a movie or a skyscraper.

Indeed, movies make a useful comparison. For all the praise that critics heap on edgy directors and low-budget indies, movies are an industry, guided not by theory but by popular taste. The same goes for buildings. The Burj, Beijing’s CCTV tower—these megaprojects weren’t built because critics said big was beautiful; they were the result of new economic power in the Persian Gulf and China, places whose leaders and titans saw iconic architecture as the best way to announce themselves.

Clay Risen is a New York-based journalist who has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate.
Clay Risen is a New York-based journalist who has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate.

During the 1990s, critic Herbert Muschamp waged war against Donald Trump, lambasting the developer’s penchant for the gaudy and the pompous when he could have been engaging thoughtful designers. But while Trump may not have liked being attacked in The New York Times, he didn’t stop building big, brash towers, and people didn’t stop buying space in them. In fact, the whole exercise proved just how little the critic’s voice mattered. Nor did the barbs aimed by Muschamp’s successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff, at mogul Bruce Ratner’s Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, N.Y., delay its construction or alter its design. What did? A collapsing market, which forced Ratner to bag a Frank Gehry scheme for a more moderate one by Ellerbe Becket and SHoP Architects.

Over the coming decade, what determines the size and rough shape of architectural output won’t be hair-shirted critics and designers, but the course of the global economy. If nothing big is commissioned in Dubai next year, it won’t be because the local elite have found religion. It will be because they can’t get the funding.

The public and the real-estate sector aren’t the same thing, of course, and it’s possible that some day people will turn against blockbuster architecture. But that’s unlikely, if only because public attitudes toward design skew heavily to the pragmatic. Barclays Center will be a public success as long as fans can easily get in and out of its arena. Aside from grumbling neighbors, most people won’t give much thought to its massing, lines, and style.

Sure, there will be buildings that seem to speak to a new sense of modesty, and the design press will laud them as such. But don’t expect the public to follow suit. Daniel Burnham may have been referring to urban planning, but his words still apply: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” Nor will the New Modesty.