Architecture or ‘starchitecture’? Morality in construction | The Triangle

Architecture or ‘starchitecture’? Morality in construction

The talk at Drexel University this week by the distinguished architecture critic and historian Witold Rybczynski left me with a question I didn’t get a chance to ask, so I’ll pose it here: Are there some buildings that should not be built?

Rybczynski’s talk didn’t focus on that question but raised it indirectly. His subject was the phenomenon of the “starchitect,” a coinage denoting an architect whose services are much in demand because he has established a commercially successfully brand.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, a part of our pervasive celebrity culture. Just as museums and collectors feel themselves lacking if they don’t have their own Pablo Picasso or Paul Cezanne (whatever the quality of the work), so cities and corporations now want their own Frank Gehry, good or bad.

This is bad for the starchitect, Rybczynski suggests, because it puts pressure on him to produce not original work but knockoffs of the brand his patrons have come to expect. This is bad for the cities that get them, because not only do they tend to be second-rate but they also are typically ill-suited to the environments they’re plunked down in.

It isn’t exactly Levittown, but you get the idea. Each true city has its own distinctive character and history, and a building that doesn’t respect or even consider that character does it a disservice.

These points seemed to me well-taken. The implication was that cities are ill-served by one-size-fits-all brands that don’t really fit in anywhere, but simply represent the creeping homogenization of globalism. Cities would be better served, Rybczynski suggested, by using local architects who knew the place where they worked.

Fair enough. But the starchitect system does have one advantage: it tips the ordinary balance of power. Normally, the architect serves his patron. The patron decides what kind of building he wants built, where and for how much money. The architect, in short, works within the terms of his commission, and if the patron is unsatisfied, the building doesn’t get built.

Even great architects have this rather humiliating experience. With the starchitect, though, the point is to get his name on an actual edifice. He also costs more money to begin with, another incentive to get the job done even if the patron is unhappy with the result. You build the building because you’ve bought the brand.

Ordinary architects can only dream of a situation in which their instincts and wishes prevail over those of their patrons. They work in a world in which mediocrity and even philistinism are the norm. I don’t think I’m letting any trade secrets out to say that the vast majority of modern buildings are of stunning uniformity
and banality.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that architects today are less talented. Let’s say simply that Filippo Brunelleschi and Gian Lorenzo Bernini were more fortunate in their patrons, and that architecture in their times sometimes had nobler objectives than commerce.

We can sum up the point by saying that the world would be a better place if some of the buildings that get built today — perhaps a great many of them — weren’t put up. But that is an aesthetic objection.

The question I wanted to put to Rybczynski was different: Are there some buildings that shouldn’t be built not because they are ugly or ill-situated, but because their purpose is immoral?

I think the answer to that question has to be yes, if architecture is to be considered an art and a profession and not simply a complicated artisanal trade. A fairly obvious example comes to mind: Adolf Hitler had big architectural plans, and he gave his favored architect Albert Speer a lot
of commissions.

I’d say that was work Speer shouldn’t have taken, although perhaps at a certain point he didn’t have much choice.

Some examples are less obvious. Should an atheist build a church? I’m sure it’s happened. Should anyone build a corporate headquarters for, say, Walmart or Comcast? That, too, has happened, and in the latter case a new Comcast tower is going up on Philadelphia’s much-abused skyline. Of course, architects must eat like the rest of us. And if you’re a picky eater, you’re apt to go hungry.

I don’t know how Rybczynski would have answered my question. But he did allude, somewhat delicately, to a building that has been built and that, in my view, never should have been. I refer to the new location of the Barnes Foundation.

How’s that, you say? Okay, maybe not build a concentration camp or a new Tower of Babel for Comcast, but a museum? What could be more inoffensive than that?

Glad you asked. Hitler also wanted to build museums. There was to have been a Jewish museum — not to open, of course, until the last Jew had been exterminated — to show future generations of goose-steppers what a blight on mankind the Fuhrer had removed.

But Hitler also wanted to build new museums to house all the art he’d looted from subject countries and liberated from non-Aryan owners. Should those museums have been built? Should any architect have accepted such a commission?

The point is germane, because the new location for the Barnes Foundation was built for just the same purpose: to harbor stolen goods; precisely, the $30 billion in art removed from the Barnes Foundation in Merion in 2012 in the biggest theft of art since World War II.

True, the art was moved by those legally responsible for it, and moved not from Rome or Paris to Berlin but five miles across a county line to downtown Philadelphia (although one might want to ask why hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it footed by taxpayers, needed to spent for a five-mile trek in the first place).

But a theft it was, and recognized as such by prominent artists and critics, civil rights and community activists, a former head of the National Endowment of the Arts, and protesters from around the world. The controversy surrounding the Barnes was certainly known to the architects who bid on the new museum, and to the team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien whose design was selected. Williams and Tsien made various appearances around Philadelphia, but they confined themselves to technical discussions and presentations.

Here was what the new building would look like, they said; here were the elements and materials that would go into it. Why and whether it should be built at all did not concern them or perhaps even interest them. The requisite clearances were in place; the money had been raised; their fee was being paid. Was all the other fussing any of their business?

I’d say it was, and very much so. The Barnes Foundation was located in a building designed by one of Philadelphia’s most prominent architects, Paul Philippe Cret. Rybczynski paid particular attention to it in his lecture, pointing to the idiosyncratic features Albert Barnes himself had added to the building as a means of accentuating its cultural significance.

It sat, and does sit, on a 12-acre lot purchased by Barnes and planted with an exquisite garden and arboretum containing rare species from around the globe. The art classes taught in the building, with the collection itself as the tutorial material, were complemented by the horticultural program based on the external grounds.

The integrated whole was an enterprise of deep and noble ambition — the most important cultural project undertaken in America in the first half of the 20th century, as the critic Christopher L. Knight noted — and the building with its environs an inseparable aesthetic whole.

To remove the art collection from this setting was to eviscerate one of the most remarkable sites in the world. And there is nothing sadder in the world today — the world of art at least — than the sight of Cret’s empty building.

Williams and Tsien chose to ignore this. They went for the bucks. They were willing parties and facilitators in the destruction of a great public trust. They failed the first moral requirement of their profession: to respect the cultural tradition handed down to them. Rather, they showed no awareness that such a tradition even existed.

What goes around comes around. The America Folk Art Museum — a problem-plagued building designed by Williams and Tsien opposite New York’s Museum of Modern Art — stood in the way of the museum’s expansion plans. Down it went, despite much hand wringing
by preservationists.

A payback from the gods? No, more like an example of the crass, commercially driven hubris that cynically undermined the Barnes, and for which the plainest name is barbarism. And, after all, Williams and Tsien got paid for that building too, didn’t they?

To answer my own question: Yes, architecture is a moral profession, and must be moral to be a profession. The deep meretriciousness and falsity of the Barnes Foundation shows what results when it is practiced otherwise.

Robert Zaller is a history professor at Drexel University. He can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.