By Clem Labine
It’s obvious that publicity and creating “buzz” are the routes to fame and fortune in big-time architecture. When commissioning high-profile buildings, institutional clients these days usually opt for a brand-name “Starchitect” with a reputation for creating iconic buildings. (“Iconic,” of course, means a one-off bizarre-looking structure.) In due time, the designated Starchitect will bring forth the expected tortured configuration, guaranteeing that photos of this “bold icon of modern architecture” will appear in all the magazines and travel brochures. Mission accomplished; game over.
Of course, when erecting this iconic sculpture-building, the client will discover that: (a) The building costs twice as much as originally estimated; (b) Construction is several years behind schedule; (c) People who use the building hate it; and (d) The building has numerous flaws that will cost additional millions to fix. But these are minor bumps on the road to architectural greatness. The primary goal is to create a structure that has an idiosyncratic profile that makes a striking picture. It’s the photo that certifies that one is an architectural genius.
Alas, there is one problem with this sure-fire formula for success in big-time architecture: Architecture critics are easily bored. Yesterday’s radical design becomes today’s ho-hum cliché; the never-ending striving for novelty is the architectural equivalent of the Arms Race. It’s in this frenzy to create the new, the extreme, the preposterous, that Lady Gaga has so much to teach aspiring Starchitects.
The Architect Becomes Artiste
The competition to create ever-more outlandish designs got rolling in the 20th century when big-time architects began to see themselves more as “artistes” than builders. By definition, an artiste is a genius whose devotion to art places his/her aesthetic judgment above questioning by us Philistines.
Modern artistes are taught that, above all, they must strain for NOVELTY; they are rewarded for being outrageous and shocking and for smashing taboos. Whatever the current fashion, they must do something different. When architects embraced the dogma of Modernism, along with it came the notion of the architect as a member of this aesthetic elite who would lead the masses to a more rational, functional world.
For a few decades, Modernist architects focused on the search for the perfect glass box. But after a while, it emerged that, no matter what the configuration, the glass box was no more economical nor functional than traditional architecture. Worse, orthogonal glass boxes got boring; no more novelty there.
Thus we’ve “progressed” to the age of deconstructivist sculpture-buildings. Gone are the pretensions that Modernism would lead the masses into a more rational, scientific world. Now the look is the thing; as long as a building looks different and high-tech, it can be an “icon of modern architecture.” And so we get the convoluted creations of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Thom Mayne, Zaha Hadid and their fellow-travelers.
But even these cutting-edge Starchitects are running into problems: (1) Their contorted shapes are so difficult to build that they’re reaching the outer edge of what’s affordable; (2) The novelty value of sculpture-buildings is starting to wear off, as deconstructivist Starchitecture becomes more commonplace. That’s where Lady Gaga can teach budding Starchitects how to take the publicity game to the next level.
Lessons from Lady Gaga
In a period of just two years, Lady Gaga has gone from total obscurity to a household name, riding a veritable tsunami of publicity. She clearly knows a lot about creating “buzz.” From her example, here are some tips for aspiring Starchitects:
Lady Gaga is a self-proclaimed publicity hound. “Take my picture,” she screams to fans. She mocks the same star-maker machinery that is making her rich. Starchitects could benefit from her honesty by dropping all the pompous rhetoric they use to justify their weird designs. It would be refreshing to hear just one of them cheerfully confess: “Hey, I’m just a publicity slut.”
Any Typology Can Be Made More Bizarre:
Designers in the Haus of Gaga work feverishly to make each element of Lady Gaga’s next costume more absurd than the last. Her outlandish designs make it clear that Starchitecture has only scratched the surface of the grotesque.
Nothing Is Too Outrageous:
Lady Gaga has proven that the more ludicrous the display, the more photographers will love you. The take-away for Starchitects: Good taste plays no role in fame-seeking.
One Viewing Only:
Once Lady Gaga has worn an outfit, it disappears. She knows it has the power to dazzle only that first time. Starchitects come up short in this area, because they litter the land with yesterday’s radical designs – which quickly become shopworn and tired-looking.
If you dislike a piece of sculpture, it’s easy to avert your eyes. But offensive sculpture-buildings are simply too big to ignore; they become another form of urban blight. Hence my Modest Proposal.
The National Endowment for the Arts should set up a Modernist Architectural Park deep in the Nevada desert. There, Starchitects can demonstrate their creativity to their hearts’content. If budgets are tight, their creations can even be constructed of temporary materials. The structures merely have to look innovative for a series of photos; no one ever need use the buildings. And in their splendid isolation, these absurdist structures will not dehumanize the urban environment of the rest of the citizenry.
NEA grants will support the experiments of these architectural geniuses, and we mere mortals won’t be assaulted by their “bold icons of modern architecture” every day. Their creative fantasies will be stored in the architectural equivalent Lady Gaga’s closet of forgotten fashions. Thank you for showing the way, Lady Gaga! TB
Clem Labine, editor emeritus of Traditional Buildingmagazine, is the founder of Traditional Building, Period Homes and Old-House Journal magazines. He has received numerous awards and was a founding board member of the ICA&CA. In collaboration with Restore Media, in 2009, he launched the Clem Labine Award to honor an individual for a consistent body of work that fosters humane values in the built environment. His blog can be found at www.traditional-building.com.