An astonishing recent statement by a leading contemporary architect reveals much about the mindset of today’s new Modernists. Those 43 words explain why so many urban environments are becoming a playground for aggressively bizarre buildings, all clamoring for attention like bickering five-year-olds.
The revealing statement was blurted out during a panel assembled by New York magazine for the purpose of picking “The Greatest Building in New York.” Architect Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, told his fellow panelists that he believed a great building should be a good citizen and “. . . to work with the city and not against it.” Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects immediately shot back: “I disagree. Like other kinds of art, great buildings contradict everything else. They make us think. They start conversations, so people talk about what it means to fit in, what it means to have courage. It’s okay for some buildings not to work.”
In that one amazing statement, Pasquarelli makes clear that crazy, irrational buildings stem from this widely held conviction that an architect is an artist whose canvas happens to be the entire cityscape. Of course, the claim that an architect is just like a painter or sculptor is debatable, to say the least. A bad painting or sculpture can be easily avoided or ignored. However, a bad building that is not a "good citizen" to its neighbors cannot be ignored by passersby. Architects have a responsibility to the public realm much greater than the painter or sculptor. To call for buildings that “contradict everything else” is just a fancy way of masking architects’ arbitrary search for gimmicks and novelty.
The further assertion that it’s O.K. for a building “not to work” as long as it “makes us think” is arrogant in the extreme. It suggests that the artist/architect is an aesthetic law unto himself or herself – and the rest of us be damned. Never mind if the people who use the building don’t like it; never mind if the building leaks and requires excessive repairs and maintenance; never mind if the building doesn’t well serve its intended function; never mind if the building disrupts the character of the entire neighborhood.
Ironically, after all the rhetoric in favor of contradictory iconic buildings, Pasquarelli went along with the majority of his fellow panelists (most of whom were Modernists) in voting for Grand Central Terminal as the greatest building in New York. And please note: Grand Central – a classical Beaux-Arts building – is definitely (to use Stern’s terminology) a good citizen!