The “Starchitect”: Wow Factor

In this blog post, I examine the extravagant architecture that has been used throughout the world by “star architects” to create civic icons. Such buildings are hailed for their financial success in attracting investors, but are horribly unsustainable in a budget and environmentally conscious society.

The architecture industry finds itself at a crossroads; will it see the extinction of the glamorous “starchitect”, or will architects be forced to evolve and meet the demands of environmentalists? While in the past, countries have competed to attract tourism and global investment, more recently the focus of branding techniques has been directed toward cities. As planners began to understand the importance of branding a city with an iconic building, they would commission these “starchitects” more frequently to ensure media publicity. The list of these starchitects includes Daniel Libeskind, Zaha HadidJean NouvelRem KoolhaasNorman FosterSantiago Calatrava, and Renzo Piano, among others. For instance, Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall (2003) has become an icon in Los Angeles, but the true success of architecture is not quantified by the number of car commercials it is featured in. In an interview with Holly Williams, Gehry identifies the impact of his Walt Disney Concert Hall, “It doesn’t leak and people love it and it works, and people identify Los Angeles with the building the way people identify Bilbao with the other building”. Gehry was referring to his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that transcended the traditional standards of success and opened the doors to a new league of global tourism.
Bilbao, Spain acts as the perfect case study for this recent phenomenon. The transformation of Bilbao from an impoverished port-city to a globalized cultural center was a calculated endeavor by city planners. Knowing that a cultural, artistic revival was necessary, they commissioned Frank Gehry to design the Guggenheim Museum. UsingCATIA, a computer software previously used in aircraft and naval design, Gehry was able to calculate the curvature necessary for his dramatic titanium-clad surfaces in the museum. Gehry stayed within the budget of $100 Million but the building literally paid for itself in one year with revenue generated from its world-wide reputation. While Gehry’s design was met with initial opposition, its bold presence has created a civic icon and “Put Bilbao on the map” according to newspapers. For this reason, architect, Philip Johnson considers the Guggenheim, “The greatest building of our time”. City planners today refer to the “Bilbao Effect” when considering the power of architecture to transform a city.

Since the creation of the Guggenheim, cities all over the world are seeking the artistic renaissance that Bilbao experienced. Although Milan already has a well-established cultural identity, it is undergoing a transformation that includes the design of iconic buildings by big-name architects. Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Arata Isozaki have been commissioned to build three high-rise mixed-use buildings in a historic Milanese neighborhood. These three high-rises will do more than attract flocks of architecture students because of their “Wow factor”. The goal of this vertical housing and commercial project is to create Milan’s first zero-emissions neighborhood. While the names of these architects will generate publicity on their own, the sustainable consideration of promising carbon neutrality is an admirable benchmark. In this project, the architects were forced to be environmentally sensitive, not gaudy for the sake of investment opportunities. Thus, the final building is a byproduct of the challenges that the architect takes on. If the architect confronts and solves issues of sustainability, these will become the focus of the project. In a Newsweek article, Cathleen McGuigan argues that the “death of starchitecture” is imminent as clients begin to cut costs in a budget-conscious economy. She states that sustainable practices both economic and environmental will curtail the “Look what I can do” architecture that is has become prevalent in major cities. However, if the project is commissioned by investors whose bottom line is earning revenue, such sustainable considerations will be disregarded and replaced with motives of seeking attention from a global audience. Such has been the case for the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

When a seemingly bottomless pit of oil was discovered in Dubai, ideas and investors ran wild. A phenomenon unlike any other in the world, “Accelerated Urbanism” took place. Construction cranes spanned the skyline, erecting monumental landmarks including theBurj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Instead of designing buildings that related to their immediate surroundings in Dubai, structures were planned in response to global trends and forces. Thus, notions of creating a civic identity among residents became an agenda of creating a world-wide identity among tourist destinations. The image of Dubai has not only been defined by gargantuan architecture, it has become inundated with it. As the oil well begins to dry up in Dubai, nearby Abu Dhabi is emerging as the next real estate venture based on extravagant architecture. Frank Gehry is also commissioned to do aGuggenheim museum here, but under much different circumstances. Abu Dhabi is already becoming a well-established iconic city, unlike Bilbao that needed a single architectural monument to transform the city.

Not all cities are following the gaudy model of flashy, perpetual expansion. Vancouver, British Columbia has set the standard for sustainable, “green” neighborhoods. vancouver small.jpgThe goal of city planners is to become the world’s most “green” city, with initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and foster live/work communities within dense neighborhoods. Unsustainable cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles are growing horizontally outward, while Vancouver is promoting public transport, and building compact housing in the core of the city. This alternative approach negates the need for a long commute, reducing CO2emissions generated from cars. Since the sustainable initiatives have been enacted, the city has seen a 180% increase in cycling, a 44% increase in walking, and a 50% increase in public transit. Vancouver is harnessing methane gasses emitted from waste to generate much of its power, aiming for carbon neutrality by 2020. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system is using Vancouver as a benchmark for its rating system of Platinum, Gold, and Silver. Vancouver currently features over 1.8 million square feet of LEED Gold and Platinum development including the world’s first LEED Platinum Convention Center (above). The “green” city of Vancouver is no longer an outlier among urban cities, but a model for forward-thinking city planners world-wide. While ostentatious and sustainable architecture may appear incompatible, their ability to coexist will prove crucial in the progression of the architecture dialogue.


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