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Why the Starchitect Debate isn't "Stupid"

Starchitecture is just a symptom of a much bigger problem in the profession.

By Michael J. Crosbie
October 10, 2014

Over the past few months, the debate about whether “starchitects” are ruining the world has lobbed back and forth like a tennis ball on a hot summer day, now stretching into early autumn. Most of this game has taken place in the New York Times, which published several articles by astute observers of the starchitecture scene, taking pro and con stands on the matter. In July, architect Beverly Willis, who heads the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (on whose advisory board I serve), expressed her spunky delight that the starchitect might be going the way of the Dodo bird. And not a moment too soon!


Architecture writer James S. Russell took Willis to task in a piece that appeared on his blog. Using the headline as a blunt instrument, Russell expressed his seeming exasperation that the whole debate was just plain “stupid.” He opened his article by essentially dissing Willis, opining that, like a lot of other critics of starchitecture, “she gets it wrong....” And then? He promptly drops her. Russell never mentions Willis in his post again – he doesn’t say why she is wrong, doesn’t even address her position that starchitects thrive off a misconception of the architecture profession’s collaborative nature. He moves next to poor Witold Rybczynski, who wrote a Times piece about starchitecture, for which Russell pronounces him lazy. Who is being lazy here?


Willis zeroed in on the issue of collaboration and how starchitects appear to exist in a world of architectural practice that bears little resemblance of life on Planet Earth. Her point, which I happen to agree with, is that architecture is an intensely collaborative affair. She doesn’t mention it in her Times piece, but Willis has often compared the creation of a building to the making of a movie. Many times, there are thousands of people involved in making it happen, and if they weren’t involved the building simply wouldn’t happen. We have to remember that architects typically don’t “build” anything, although we use that verb in connection with designers without really noticing the fiction it suggests. It is “Zaha’s building,” with nary a mention of the multitudes who raised it (in certain contexts one could say “slaved” to raise it, and lost their lives for it, but that’s another story).


The topic of credit is close to Willis’s heart because she is an architect who is also a woman, and gender is often at the root of being ignored as an architect (“ignored” is sometimes too kind a description – try “not even existing”). The foundation Willis founded focuses on promoting the accomplishments of women architects, but the agenda is broader than that. Credit in architecture firms is often a very murky business. Young architects (even seasoned ones) will leave a firm if they believe their contributions are not honestly being recognized. More than 20 years ago, in the pages of Progressive Architecture, Tom Fisher wrote about the “Intern Trap,” showing how architecture firms (many of them high-flying design firms) paid intern architects very little or sometimes not at all. It is still a problem. Interns get to add a big-name firm to their resumes, which they believe will make them more marketable. But not paying minimum wage, or paying nothing at all, is against the law. I tell my architecture students at the University of Hartford that they should never work for free. It is easy for me to do this partly because I am not at the beginning of my career, just starting out. But mostly it is easy to pass on this advice because I believe not paying an intern degrades the professional stature of not only young architects, but of all architects, stars or not. The message is clear: It is okay to work long hours and be paid very little, or nothing. But you can’t be exploited unless you agree to be a partner in the crime.


Not recognizing the contributions of the many people who make a work of architecture possible – in either name or through compensation – is the other side of the starchitecture coin. The debate, as framed by people like Willis, is not an issue of design quality. It is an issue of fair treatment and professional responsibility. The starchitecture system allows us to look the other way when we know that a single superstar can’t do it on his or her own. It denies the way practice actually works. It also blinds us to the contributions of thousands of people involved in a project, and to the fact that sometimes the best projects are those that draw out those many talents. This view of practice celebrates the heart of its collaborative nature.


Architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright has used the word “constellation” to describe the web of relationships among stars (architectural and otherwise), “putting individual stars in a larger context,” says Wright, “at once constant and contingent.” Contingent is the key word here. The web of relationships brings different people in and out of each other’s orbit, and the proximity of those we work with has an undeniable affect on each one of us. Willis expands on Wright’s analogy in characterizing today’s younger architects as more prone to working in constellations of practice: groups of architects, who through technology and temperament, align with other professionals to create ensembles that play together and collaborate on a single project, then disperse. Isn’t this the way architecture has always been created, but especially today, when building performance has become so complex? This is why Willis suggests the model of the movie industry’s Academy Awards as one that might allow the architecture profession to more accurately recognize the constellations of talent necessary to achieve the multifaceted, broadly based architectural projects of today.


Far from getting it wrong, I would say that Willis’s view that starchitecture helps perpetuate a fantasy about architecture that denies its collaborative dimension – which should be recognized and celebrated – is clearly right on target.



Michael J. Crosbie, FAIA, Ph.D., is an architect, editor of Faith & Form magazine, and a professor of architecture at the University of Hartford.


Also by Crosbie:


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Dr. Imdat As

(l-r): Foster, Zumthor, Diller, Gehry, Libeskind, Koolhaas, Hadid.