Celebrity Architecture

Perhaps, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that architecture and urban design today is suffering from putting to much emphasis on the representation at the expense of other values, especially when one considers the amount of market and politically driven developments.  In a recent urban design competition (two months ago) organized by the Municipality of Tirana for the redevelopment of Scanderbeg Square, where such names as Daniel Libeskind, MVRDV, Josep Lluis Mateo, Architecture Studio were invited. I thought it was no accident that in all the proposals submitted for the competition, there was not a single one proposing a transportation scheme, although it was one of the requirements on the competition brief. The only proposal that had slightly touched on the transportation, the one by MVRDV, proposed cable cars that run from a mountain nearby Tirana called Dajti that serves as a winter resort, to the center of the city. However romantic this idea is, it hardly touches on the real issues that the relationships between the center and the new developments in periphery of Tirana have.

One thing that might have cause the transportation to be left out, certainly has got to do with the intentions behind those who organize the competition, and inclination of the competitors to propose something that aligns with clients intentions, rather than with problem solving ideas. Yet, this fact alone, speaks more about the generally accepted representational approach in today’s practice, at expense of non representational ones, as the issues of history and culture widens the scope of urban design. It would be unthinkable for example to imagine Le Corbusier designing in the center of a city and not addressing the issue of transportation and using it to generate social change. Such plans as “Ville Radieuse” for central Paris, or “Plan Obus” for Algiers had the transportation as the driving force behind the social changes these plans promote. One only can ponder on the question of how architecture came to the point where even the work of celebrity architects doesn’t reflect either on concrete issues of the city or on utopian social values – both problems addressed by avant-garde movement of the beginning of the last century.  In a speech at 125th anniversary of the school of architecture at Columbia University back in 2006, Peter Eisenman, touching on the issue of avant-garde, made the compelling argument that such a movement is impossible today, and that there is not a single avant-garde architect practicing. Paraphrasing him, “today’s architecture is not driven by important social issues characteristic of the avant-garde. Instead one can distinguish between iconic architecture driven by imaginary on one hand and important work that bring real contribution to the field of architecture on the other, only through a close reading, since there is no inspiration model or movement to follow.” He coins the current state of architecture as the period of “lateness”, one that aspires to be an avant-garde as opposed to real avant-garde of the beginning of the century, or the postmodernism which he refers to as “the declining of the avant-garde”.

But more important than his thoughts on the avant-garde are his comments made elsewhere on the issue of sustainability, where he states that “he loves it… but he rather watches a baseball game than spending time doing it”. One can admire the consistency of his thought and his sincerity, but cannot ignore the fact that there is something wrong with it. This “why bother” attitude which was described very well in an article with the same title by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazines, might be somehow understandable – although not totally legitimate when it comes from a celebrity architect – in a world where architecture is only one of many specializations of a highly intricate global system that we delegate our choices. But when one comes to make these kinds of choices in a place like Albania –  a third world country not fully integrated in the chain of cause and effect of global network that applies to developed world, and where informed decision-making is largely absent in a system filled with inefficient organizations and institutions –  simple and small decisions really do matter. One can and should blame the Albanian institutions for the failure of their own system, but certainly the role of the celebrity architects on “doing almost nothing” is not justifiable. If there was one problem that the city of Tirana faces in the future development or in the environmental sustainability, that the celebrity architects could have addressed on the urban design competition project for Skanderbeg Square, that was certainly transportation (which is in total disarray in the Albanian capital). Yet, that was one of the issues completely ignored in the celebrity event; That didn’t say anything about the city, but spoke volume about the celebratory state of architctural representation today.

2 thoughts on “Celebrity Architecture”

  1. Foucault says somewhere that cities are all about circulation – and he was talking about cities in the Middle Ages. One would be tempted to add that today’s cities are all about transportation. Your point about celebrity architecture is an excellent one, and deserves more visibility; since these headline super-heroes don’t really care about the cities they are building or the lives they are reshaping by their creations; but rather try to erect monuments to themselves or even, as a close friend of mine would say, to capitalism.

  2. Xha Xha,
    One is always tempted to find a magic formula on defining the city. It hasn’t happened yet, as far as I know. And I am tempted to say that is never going to happen. Cities are growing far more complex everyday.
    One problem that these studios face on these kinds of competitions, as they have to deal with issues such as transportation in historic centers, is that: there is no way of figuring it out unless you experience the city. And they don’t have time for that kind of thing. As oppose to a tabula-rasa approach where is the architect that sets the rules of the game, which was also avant-garde’s approach, historic centers tend to be the opposite. It seems that for these studios, the temptation of making easy money by selling their name and doing nothing is bigger than the temptation of “defining” the city.

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