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Why "Greatest Hits" Lists by Architecture's Stars Should Be Mocked

Transferring the musical or cinematic "greatest hits" list mind-set to architecture is deleterious, and here's why.

By Norman Weinstein
August 12, 2010


Is it my imagination – or are there more polls than ever lately about the greatest architecture of all time, or most stupendous of last year, or of the last decade, peppering the mainstream press? Seems like I’ve read a baker’s dozen this year already. The newest, “Vanity Fair’s World Architecture Survey” (August 2010), in which 52 leading architects, critics, and deans of architecture schools voted, seemed to trigger the strongest gag reflux of the lot (see below). Given the state of the national economy, not to mention planet, you might think this a frivolously trivial matter. “Greatest Hits” lists have driven the American popular entertainment industry for decades. And as starchitects have attained the fame of rock stars and Hollywood celebrities in recent decades, what harm is there in having them enlighten the body politic about today’s most smashing architectural icons? Is it any less instructive and/or entertaining than asking Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones to name the 10 greatest recorded guitar solos in the history of Rock?

 

Yes. I do think transferring the musical or cinematic “greatest hits” list mind-set to architecture is deleterious, and here’s why. Read the Vanity Fair poll carefully and note the following conclusions that can readily follow a careful reading:

 

·                    Starchitects tremendously adore and promote the architecture of other starchitects.

·                    Women can rarely produce architectural masterpieces – and when they do, like Maya Lin and Zahid Hadid, they’ve already been in the media limelight as often as their good old boy counterparts.

·                    Admirable architecture is ultimately the iconic materialization of money and power (with rare exceptions). In fact, great current architecture is quintessentially the deliriously hip and cool concretization of money and power under the façade of eye-popping geometrical fireworks suggesting stock market graphics.

·                    It helps to have taught at a prestigious architecture school to be admired by a dean of an architecture school.

·                    Current vernacular architecture can never be as outstanding as “the real thing.”

·                    Entire continents are without the greatest architecture of our time.

·                    Very little of the greatest recent architecture is driven by a major commitment to sustainable design.

·                    Post Occupancy Evaluation results have nothing to do with the greatest architecture, any more than lastingness.

·                    Engineers have nothing to do with the creation of the greatest recent architecture. They are no more relevant than architectural teams, student interns, construction workers, construction managers, developers, visionary clients, etc. Great architecture results from one-man bands, Renaissance figures manifesting genius most often in the form of libraries, museums, state buildings, etc.

 

Out of the 52 experts who I accuse as propagating the stale stereotypes of the profession sketched above, there are a few notable exceptions. Architect Deborah Berke and Hank Dittmar, CEO of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment – an unlikely couple! – single out two major innovative, humanitarian architecture projects of our era. Berke notes Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio student-built homes in the U.S. rural south, and Dittmar calls out the Katrina cottages designed by Andres Duany and Steve Mouzon.

 

You might argue to compare such modest noble efforts with icons like Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library or Holl’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art involves comparing apples and oranges. That can be valid up to a point – but bypasses the fact that “greatest hits” of architecture lists function as mainstream journalistic opportunities to establish “taste” for a mass audience of laypersons who depends on experts to educate them about the crème de la crème. And more significantly, these “greatest hits” of architecture lists reinforce the image of the profession as clubby, insular, and ego-aggrandizing, while doing nothing to encourage the general public to experience any and all current architecture in various and complex ways.

 

As a popular music journalist for decades, I would occasionally be asked by national publications to submit my “Top 10 albums of the year.” And I voted dutifully for the Grammys for 20 years, often driven to overcome my distain for the “greatest hits” mentality by my desire to promote underdogs, talents most in need of greater recognition. I did so with the knowledge that my readers could actually experience the music for themselves at moderate to no cost, and thus come to their own conclusions about whether my ear canals needed cleaning, or their own hearing was ultimately valorous. On the other hand, it would presuppose a six-figure budget to travel to a fair sample of the architectural winners in the Vanity Fair poll to experience for yourself the glories and/or horrors of the experts’ iconic masterpieces.

 

So suggestion lists by architectural authorities could be worthwhile for the less heeled among us. But they would need to be re-conceptualized categorically, less “greatest hits” and more of the following:

 

·                                Most outstanding car-wash or laundromat.

·                                Most architecturally innovative parking garage where a Mercedes has never been spotted.

·                                Most aesthetically inspiring and most practical emergency shelter design of the year.

·                                Most inspiring student-built architecture initially dismissed by prominent architecture school faculty where the student(s) attended.

·                                Best design for a shelter for battered spouses.

·                                Most remarkable architecture using mainly “trash.”

·                                Most elegant generic building emphasizing plainness and everydayness.

·                                The most unstately State building of the year.

·                                The most outstanding public building that most successfully resists glossy photographic reproduction.

 

Would Vanity Fair or The New York Times consider publishing such an architectural poll? Unlikely. Such polling takes vanity out of Vanity Fair, and erases certain readers’ image of New York that The New York Times sustains. But this poll needs no publication. Talk to those who care about architecture to keep these questions alive. And the times will change, and vanity (upper and lower case) will fade from the foreground of architecture.

 

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. You can reach him at nweinstein@q.com.

 

See also:

Lance Hosey on Vanity Fair's list of greatest buildings of the last 30 years: "What's missing says as much as what's on it." - Architect Magazine

 

Hosey’s “G-List”: Is the rift between design excellence and environmental performance getting wider? – Architect Magazine

 

Blair Kamin: The blind spot in Vanity Fair's world architecture survey: green design – Chicago Tribune

 

Christopher Hawthorne: A green answer to Vanity Fair's architecture poll has its own blind spot – Los Angeles Times

 

Susan Szenasy: The G-List and the A-List: it's time for the two to start working together. – Metropolis Magazine

 

 

More by Weinstein:

 

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Photographic presentation of a poet of light and concrete triumphs over lackluster commentary.

 

Book Review: Sage Architectural Reflections from Architecture's "Athena": Denise Scott Brown's "Having Words" distills a lifetime of theorizing and practice into practical and succinct guidance for thriving through difficult times
Brown's occasional papers trace a trenchant trajectory of learning from Las Vegas to learning from everything.

 

Book Review: Keeping the Architectural Profession Professional: "Architecture from the Outside In: Selected Essays by Robert Gutman" celebrates Gutman's legacy as invaluable outsider
Selected essays by a penetrating sociologist of architecture pose the kinds of tough-minded questions needed now to keep architectural professional on-track.

 

Book Review: "Design through Dialogue: A Guide for Clients and Architects," by Karen A. Franck and Teresa von Sommaruga Howard
A helpful communications primer offers case studies of winning collaborations between clients and architects, but as useful as this book proves, it leaves some uncomfortable questions about communication unaddressed.

 

Twilight Visions: Vintage Surrealist Photography Sheds New Light on Architecture 
An exhibition and book of photographs of Paris between the wars might just be the necessary correctives to the virtual sterility of digital imagery

 

Best Architecture Books of 2009 
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Book Review: "Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People," by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham 
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Book Review: "Everything Must Move: 15 Years at Rice School of Architecture 1994-2009" 
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Book Review: A Subversive Book Every Architect Needs: "Architect's Essentials of Negotiation" by Ava J. Abramowitz 
Supposedly architects don't need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design "sells itself." How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.

 

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Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy.

 



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