'Starchitects' Are Ruining Our Cities

A guide to the narcissists wanking all over your skyline.

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15 July 2014, 2:00pm

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Photo via)

Every world has its own rockstars. There are rockstar journalists. There are rockstar CEOs. Rockstar surgeons. There are probably even rockstar plumbers if you know where to look. But there are definitely rockstar architects. And we know this because they created their own word to describe the state of being a rockstar: "starchitect".

This itself tells you all you need to know about the craven insecurity of their industry. No other profession has their own word to describe a state of stardom. No one is talking about "starliticians" or "startists". Why? Because in those worlds it is self-evident who’s cool and who isn’t. If you need to tell people you are a star, well perhaps you have already failed at the first hurdle of stardom, eh buddy?

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 cheques. They want their own version of the caste system. They want their own version of sticking a red snapper in a groupie’s undercarriage. 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 centre of the earth. Because they are fucking rockstars. They are, they are they are, and you can’t say any different.

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.

Hence why we’ve all become obsessed by the idea of making weird buildings simply in order to impress ourselves. Every city needs a Gherkin, a Burj Dubai, a La Defence.

Our cities have become big birdbaths, designed to trap tourists into liking us for being so very cutting-edge – to make us feel good about the fact that our declining nation-state borrows £200 million a day just to keep the Treasury lights on. Our culture isn’t in decline, they say, with that sense of tedious self-awareness that marks out 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 (Picture via)

In 1986, when he became in one swift move the grandaddy of the fetish for starchitects, Richard Rogers already knew where pipes were meant 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 Pompidou Centre art space in Paris. Everyone was wildly excited about seeing their own aircon 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 turns up at the party in a deerstalker, everyone loves it, then he does it every subsequent time to diminishing applause. Rogers did it again. But this time, in Britain, with the Lloyds 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 two hundred years time, the authorities will be raising funds for the restoration of Rogers’ 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)

THIS. IS. IT.

Basically, it’s a branch of Foxtons wearing a 2002 Topman trucker cap, isn’t it? 

One day, a future Hitler, a future Napoleon may want to run his standard up the flagpole over here. Exactly how low will they have to stoop to conquer? “What a pathetic piece of crap is Wales,” they will think as their flagship runs in through Cardiff harbour. “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)

According to legend, Renzo Piano first sketched the 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 50 degree heat, to take him seriously.

The Shard and Tower Bridge (Photo via)

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 Colloseum, perhaps a Gaudi or two. Same difference.

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

Turning Torso (photo via)

Making buildings look like they might fall over has long been "a thing" in architecture. So the makers of the Malmö’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 a auto-9/11 on you unexpectedly one morning at 2:15AM. 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 backwards logic that drives human beings to make passive exercise beds, electric toilet seats and heated cup holders. But while you can always take your turbo-juicer down the kerb and bung it in a skip, 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)

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 doing the hoovering.

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 and rule out things that look like a mesh colostomy bag stuck on with blu-tac?”

“No… colostomy… bag…mesh… blu-tac. Right. Got it. Ok, how’s this?”

Szevita Tower Budapest (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 has to queue up behind Jenson Button’s McLaren to run them through the wind tunnel for a couple of hours. 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 as though George Lucas would be interested in staging a pod-race around it one day. Starchitects always win out, because organising 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 600ft 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 football 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 towards 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 wank fantasies.

@gavhaynes

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