In this context, the current trend toward rebranding celebrity architects as planners appears as both an evolution of the Bilbao effect, expanded to a new scale, and also a departure from it. From the developer's point of view, the decision to use “ ‘design architects' instead of ‘developer architects,' “ as Ratner has put it of his decision to engage Gehry for the Brooklyn project, genuinely seems to be motivated to some extent, at least in the most laudable cases, by a desire to overcome past mediocrity. Above all, though, it is a bid for name-brand cachet and market differentiation. (Cachet, of course, does not come cheap. According to Kurt Andersen writing in New York magazine, the difference in cost to the Atlantic Yards project is an extra 15 percent, which comes to about $40,000,000.)
At the same time, the preference on the part of the developer to work with one architect rather than many reflects a wariness about having to deal with too many prima donnas at once or to get mired in the notoriously rancorous and inefficient process of design-by-committee. The cliché image of celebrity architects as creators of buildings that are over budget, hard to maintain, and difficult to adapt to changing needs no doubt also makes for a cautionary relationship. Gehry himself has complained that he tried to convince Ratner to bring in other architects to design parts of the Brooklyn project, but Ratner refused.
For Gehry, this has led to the conundrum of how not to upstage his own buildings. His solution has been to set up a “design hierarchy”—to devise ordinary-looking “background buildings” as counterpoint for his “iconic towers.” His insecurities about the huge scope of the project have also led him to engage a raft of consultants to help him “get it right,” as he puts it. Among them is Peter Arnell of the Arnell Group, a branding specialist who put together the first monograph on Gehry's work back in the 1980s and who, from his website, appears tailor-made to package the Gehry identity: “We help brands capture and realize differentiation by exploiting a unique emotional dimension in a rational world of business.”
AS THIS SUGGESTS, the new type of work obviously poses both substantial opportunities and risks. On the one hand, it allows the famous architect to have an impact beyond the privileged precincts of high culture and to transcend the banality of the conventional development scheme. It offers an exhilarating chance to take charge of a significant chunk of urban realty and to deal with the big picture. Ideally, it enables talented and visionary design practitioners to make a profound mark on the city, affecting it at the level of urban systems rather than just superficial imagery or piecemeal interventions. Avoiding the latter is especially important from the standpoint of sustainability, if a real difference is to be made, given the interrelated and systemic problems such design poses.
On the other hand, to maintain design excellence while producing more than sexy diagrams or formularized gestures, with all the specialized skills, diverse expertise, and local knowledge this implies, is a daunting challenge. Large, bureaucratized firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which have historically designed everything from “the master plan to the ashtrays”—as they used to boast—are far better set up to provide full services than the expanded boutique firm orbiting around the reputation of one or two principals. Partnership arrangements between global superstars and large firms or, alternatively, local firms with offices on the ground have, of course, been common practice for years and are often mandated by public and government clients. But such asymmetrical relationships can introduce too many chefs and lead to bruising power struggles, as famously occurred under a harsh public spotlight with the shotgun collaboration between Daniel Libeskind and David Childs of SOM at the World Trade Center site.
They can also produce homogenization. In China, foreign architects doing short-term business in the country are obliged to work with a state architecture institute, no matter their own in-house capacities, and are legally limited to “conceptual design.” The same China Architecture Design & Research Group (CAG)—one of the largest architectural practices in China with more than 4,000 employees, created in 2000 out of a merger between the Architecture Design Institute Ministry of Construction, the China Building Technology Development Center, and other entities—is currently collaborating with Herzog & de Meuron on the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, with Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture on the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, with Murphy/Jahn Architects on the 21st Century Tower in Shanghai, and with Kohn Pedersen Fox on the Shanghai World Financial Center.
At the same time, the computer has enabled smaller offices to handle complexities today that a couple of decades ago would have been far beyond their reach. Nimble young firms with a feel for both advanced design and real-world building practice, like SHoP Architects in New York, which completed a two-mile-long esplanade for Manhattan's East River waterfront in 2005 and is now working on a 5-million-square-foot mixed-use complex near New Delhi, are scrambling to find innovative ways to meet all sizes of demand. As principal Gregg Pasquarelli has noted of emerging technologies, the speed at which multiple options can be developed, presented, priced, and analyzed urbanistically and aesthetically has given design firms like his the ability to “outperform” both larger offices and more glamorous names.
Yet perhaps the fundamental question remains what the relationship really is between architecture and urban planning. Are these two disciplines—one traditionally focused on the object and the other on the fabric—part of a continuum, or are they, in fact, opposites? Apart from the different skill sets they require, do they also involve different mindsets? In the last century, most of the acknowledged “masters,” from Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Oscar Niemeyer, Louis Kahn, and Philip Johnson, aspired to wear both hats, although only in a handful of exceptional cases did these architects succeed in realizing their largest schemes, and then not without contradiction. Gehry's dilemma of foreground versus background buildings is not a new problem for the architect, nor can it be dismissed so easily.
The extrapolation of the logic of the circumscribed object-building to the scale of the city has tended to produce the totalizing effect of the “continuous monument”—Niemeyer in Brasilia—while the absorption of the primarily symbolic and representational building into the larger urban order threatened to dilute its impact. As the critic Alan Colquhoun pointed out apropos of the irreconcilable difference between Le Corbusier's architecture and urbanism of the 1920s, the “Corbusian city seems to lack any strategy by which representational buildings could continue to exist”; the “very qualities of discreteness, difference, and lack of continuity that would make it possible for his buildings to fulfill their larger signifying ambitions” are compromised once they are turned into “a fragment of urban tissue.” Similarly, if Mies' Seagram Building and Gordon Bunshaft's Lever House changed the direction of architecture in the 1950s, they are still best appreciated against the backdrop of the more banal buildings on Park Avenue by the developer firm of Emery Roth, which, as Ada Louise Huxtable once observed, was ultimately responsible for changing the face of Manhattan.