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'Starchitects' Are Ruining Our Cities

No other profession has its own word to describe a state of stardom. No one is talking about "starliticians" or "startists." Why? Because in those worlds who's worth a damn and who sucks is self-evident. If you need to tell people you are a star, well...

by Gavin Haynes
16 July 2014, 4:30pm

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Photo via Wikicommons

Every world has its own rock stars. There are rock-star journalists. There are rock-star CEOs. Rock-star surgeons. There are probably even rock-star plumbers if you know where to look. But there are definitely rock-star architects. We know this because they created their own word to describe the state of being a rock star in the architecture industry: "starchitect."

This itself tells you all you need to know about the craven insecurity of their industry. No other profession has its own word to describe a state of stardom. No one is talking about "starliticians" or "startists." Why? Because in those worlds who's cool and who sucks is self-evident. If you need to tell people you are a star, well, perhaps you have already failed at the first hurdle of stardom.

Architects don’t get this, and they don’t think you should either. They rail against the idea that they should just get on with building nice buildings and collecting fat checks. They want their own version of the caste system. They want their own version of sticking pieces of shark into a groupie’s vagina. They wanna be adored, baby. Not merely "validated for a positive contribution to society." Screw that. Fuck the people. They want the fans. Hence why, over the last 30 years, the top tier of architects have given us the building equivalents of concept double albums about journeys to the center of the earth. Because they are fucking rock stars. They are, they are, they are, and they don't care what you have to say about it.

We have all aided and abetted them in this. Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim building iced that cake. The hulking black sail set in a depressed part of a depressed Spanish town forged the idea that a place could be reinvented and regenerated single-handedly by a building with enough modernistic baubles on it. They even coined a phrase to describe that theory: the Bilbao Effect.

And so we’ve all become obsessed with the idea of making weird buildings simply to impress ourselves. Every city needs a Gherkin, a Burj Dubai, a La Défense.

Our cities have become big birdbaths, designed to trap tourists into liking us for being so very cutting-edge—to make us forget about the fact that we owe China $1.3 trillion. Our culture isn’t in decline, they say, with that sense of tedious self-awareness that marks cultures in decline. The sort of insecurity that makes former imperial powers bid for the Olympics. Yes. "They still like us," these buildings say. "They actually like us."

Face it: Starchitects are a symptom of decline, not a symptom of success. They are people you should beat with a stick if you get close enough. Here's who they are:

RICHARD ROGERS

The Lloyd's building, right. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 1986, when in one swift move he became the grandaddy of the fetish for starchitects, Richard Rogers already knew where pipes were supposed to go. It wasn’t like he was unaware. They’d covered that one in his basic training. But Rogers wanted to take a new approach to pipes—pipes on the outside. So he made the Centre Pompidou art space in Paris. Everyone was wildly excited about seeing their own air-conditioning vents and shitpipes. No one had had much contact with pipes until that point, and they found the idea of all their breathed gases and flushed turds swishing up and down in plain sight utterly enchanting. Rogers was applauded, widely and wildly, for his designs. That was everyone’s first mistake.

He was like the guy who shows up to the party and ices someone and everyone loves it, but then he does it every subsequent time to diminishing applause. Rogers did it again. But this time, in Britain, with the Lloyd's building.

But the die was already being cast. Rogers and his bloomin’ pipes pretty much invented the idea of the starchitect. Which is why, when it came time to design the Welsh Parliament, Rogers was once again at the top of the list.

The Welsh administration wanted a building to stand for all time. This was the natural end point of devolution: Welsh decisions made for Welsh people in a Welsh structure that would last until the Kingdom of the Dragons tumbled into the sea. In 200 years time, the authorities will be raising funds for the restoration of Rogers’s creation. They will be sandblasting it clean in 2430—a vital link in the eternal braid of people and place that makes Wales.

National Assembly for Wales. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

THIS. IS. IT.

One day, a future Hitler, or a future Napoleon, may want to run his flag up the pole over here. Exactly how low will he have to stoop to conquer? What a pathetic piece of crap is Wales, he will think as his flagship runs in through Cardiff harbor. What a fucking depressingly self-conscious little monument to their own petit bourgeois good taste these people have constructed to rule over them. Changed my mind. Turn the gunboats around. Let’s see what’s over the Irish Sea.

RENZO PIANO

The Shard's inauguration. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

According to legend, Renzo Piano first sketched London's Shard on the back of a napkin in a restaurant. No wonder it took him over a decade to get the thing off the ground. He’d designed a shard. “You see, it’s a big shard,” he’d say, “for the rich,” as he was gently but firmly escorted towards the elevator. It took the Qataris—a nation with the sort of tenuous relationship with reality that allows them to imagine air-conditioning entire stadiums in 100-plus-degree heat, to take him seriously.

The Shard and Tower Bridge. Photo via Flickr user George Rex

Skip forward several years of money wrangles and you have an utterly ahistorical monument to the power of global capital formation and Middle Eastern national gas reserves that could have been built in any city on the globe at any time since 1990 and it would’ve blended in exactly the same—i.e., not at all. Look at this photo. Now sub in the Statue of Liberty for Tower Bridge, or the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, perhaps a Gaudi or two. Same difference.

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

Turning Torso. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Making buildings look like they might fall over has long been "a thing" in architecture. So the makers of Malmö, Sweden's Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia, probably thought it would really get people excited if they made the building equivalent of a rollercoaster. After all, you’d like to go to sleep on a rollercoaster, wouldn’t you? You’d like to nurse your new baby on a rollercoaster? Secretly, they imagined, everyone wants to live somewhere that looks like it might do an auto-9/11 on you unexpectedly one morning at 2:15 AM. That’s the reason humans seek out dwelling spaces, isn’t it? To challenge their sense of fear.

Somewhere, Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava seems to have missed the basic fact that skyscrapers are all unnatural acts that our caveman instincts have had to make an uneasy compromise with. Living up in the sky is not God’s plan unless your granddad was a bald eagle. So why overcomplicate things?

Sadly, Calatrava exhibits the same backward logic that drives human beings to make passive exercise beds, electric toilet seats, and heated cup holders. But while you can always throw your turbo juicer out when it inevitably breaks, the Turning Torso is going to be around forever.

This despite the public seeming to have given their own verdict on the project already: The apartments have remained unsold, and so most are rented instead.

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. Photo via Wikimedia Commons 

If you’re one of the lucky renters living on the 23rd floor of the Turning Torso, you’d probably just want some basic reassurance that the man’s buildings don’t fall apart entirely at random. You’d want it. But you can’t have it, because his Valencia opera house is doing exactly that right now.

Turns out the whole thing is being slowly destroyed by high winds, has been closed to the public for several years, and Calatrava’s home city is now suing him for a refund on his poxy designs. Remember: Rent, don’t buy, and always wear your parachute when vacuuming.

ZAHA HADID

“Well I guess we just want something sympathetic. This is quite an old square. In Budapest, venerable capital of several empires and all that. Think Mozart. Think Hussars. Think Hapsburg. So we’re open-minded, obviously, but let’s at least try to rule out things that look like gigantic glowing mesh colostomy bags?”

“No… colostomy… bag… mesh… glowing. Got it. OK, how’s this?”

Szervita Square Tower, Budapest. Photo via Zaha Hadid

“Well, it’s not ideal…”

Zaha Hadid seems to design all her stuff via the melting method. She probably sculpts models of perfectly normal buildings in butter, then points a hair dryer at them for a few minutes. Which is exactly why she has become a go-to for big public commissions: because she simply looks futuristic. In the modern world, you could never convince an Olympic bid committee that you should be allowed to host the 2022 Summer games if you can’t make a stadium look like George Lucas would be interested in staging a pod-race around it one day. The starchitects always win out, because organizing committees need to have some reason for distinguishing the stadium-is-a-stadium-is-a-stadium nature of their job.

Starchitects are often accused of making buildings that are effectively 600-foot plaster casts of their penises, so it’s great to see Hadid winning one back for the laydeez via this fetching bit of anatomy which doubles as a future soccer stadium in Qatar.

Yes, thanks to this Iraqitecht, it seems that the secret of what’s under all those niqabs is finally out in the kingdom of Qatar. Pretty soon, apartments with minge-facing views will be in hot demand. Single men, in the absence of secure VPNs, will turn their predatory male gaze toward the stadium to secretly whack one out. “Ooh, stadium,” they will moan at the moment of release. And that is surely every starchitect’s Ballard-style dark techno-sex thrill. You jizzing on their own personal jerk fantasies.

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