The Galaxy SOHO, an office, retail, and entertainment complex designed by Zaha Hadid, in Beijing.
Iwan Baan The Galaxy SOHO, an office, retail, and entertainment complex designed by Zaha Hadid, in Beijing.

Starchitecture is not the real problem. Bad buildings are. Excessive egos and a lack of collaboration on all levels of the design process, from making the design to working with clients, consultants and experts, and extra-commission stakeholders (neighbors, communities, governments) is a problem, but not nearly as much as the real problem: a risk-adverse, NIMBY culture that also refuses to invest in social quality, share resources, and, what is ultimately the most important, build for its own hopes and fears.

Yale architecture professor and theoretician Peggy Deamer has done the discipline a great disservice by once again raising the false problem of certain architects’ inflated egos in an editorial published in The New York Times. By blaming the likes of Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA; Frank Gehry, FAIA; and Daniel Libeskind, AIA; she has done exactly what she claims to want to avoid: make a few architects and their statements—taken in isolation—the problem, rather than focusing on the larger issue of how many bad—by which I mean wasteful, socially, and environmentally isolated and isolating, and just plain ugly—buildings are being constructed.

An office building in Phoenix.
Flickr user Kevin Dooley An office building in Phoenix.

How many truly bad buildings have so-called starchitects managed to get built? How many truly dreadful buildings have the anonymous teams Deamer seems to like perpetrated on our landscape? How many of those anonymous firms work for dictators and repressive regimes in comparison with the dubious commissions one or two well-known figures have accepted? The mind boggles at the ratio.

Yes, visible monuments that look different and have a name attached to them act as symbols, but what is the truly pernicious influence of Gehry’s Disney Hall or Hadid’s latest curvy-wurvy? That it is imitated by bad architects? That someone else might accept a commission in Kazakhstan? Give me a break. And, that is worse of a problem than the bland boxes of absence filling our lives?

Yes, these well-known architects should do more to use their visibility to argue for making architecture and the way it produces buildings more just in every aspect, from where and for whom it is built, to its expenditure of materials, to the treatment of workers realizing their designs. Yes, they should not do evil.

But the true evil is perpetrated, as several commenters to Deamer’s screed have noted, by the anonymous firms that truly dominate the field, and whose equally faceless buildings are dumb uses of resources that dumb down our cities and the building’s occupants both.

By the way, we have always had starchitects. Palladio was one. So were Michelangelo, Henri Labrouste, Edwin Lutyens, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Robert Venturi, FAIA, to name just a random historical sampling. Were they the problem?

Deamer claims the evil is rooted in an architecture education built around an unhealthy focus on individual competition. Baloney, I say again. I don’t know about her teaching experience, but every studio I teach is based on collaboration, as is that of most of the colleagues with which I work. The problem is an architecture education based on the production of free-standing objects in competition with other such objects, and on the idea that you can solve unsolvable (in our current socio-economic context) problems like social housing and sprawl. The issue that success there is measured not by a student’s ability to make good architecture, but to “first do no harm.” Education’s end (based on accreditation), in other words, is where architecture should move beyond, namely with the construction of dumb, but safe and cheap buildings.

Let’s stop worrying about successful architects who are trying to make good buildings in a difficult world. Let’s focus on the crimes of unnecessarily using up natural resources to create imprisoning and oppressive buildings. Let’s get beyond object fixation and the ideas about what architecture is and isn’t that date back to an era when central states still controlled the profession. Let’s wage war on the faceless bureaucracies in and around architecture, from firms to consultants to clients to universities, and fight for the liberation of architecture from the dumb box.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Second image used via a Creative Commons License with Flickr user Kevin Dooley.