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Architecture, the ultimate fame game

Clients and architects alike are hungry for it: fame really is good for business, says Rory Olcayto

Nobody wants to be an executive architect when they begin their studies at architecture school. Who wants to deliver a building on behalf of another, more glamorous architect, only for them to steal the glory after the job is finished?

Quite a few students, however, do want to be famous, influential, and most want to be, at the very least, respected. You may find this facile, pathetic even, and wonder ‘why oh why’ must all prospective architects imagine they can be a Corb or a Kahn when clearly, they can’t.

But that would be unfair. My introduction to the world of architecture was framed by lectures on Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe and by studio tutors similarly obsessed (Gordon Benson was head of school when I began at the University of Strathclyde in 1989). Yours was probably much the same.

As a community, we were inculcated into this ego-driven culture, a process brilliantly described by Jeremy Till in the opening chapters of Architecture Depends.

Despite the success of the sustainability agenda to become a crucial part of the student outlook, the starchitect is still more thoroughly worshipped than any other aspect of architectural culture in schools up and down the country.

The point here is that fame – and the talent that, pre-X-Factor, was guaranteed as part of the package – plays a big part in architectural culture and clients in particular are drawn to it. Our lead story this week illustrates this point with brutal clarity.

Several of the new projects Will Alsop has secured for his studio at RMJM are commissions from clients who specifically wanted Alsop to be associated with their project. For example, the Chinese businessman who approached Alsop in 2002 to design a waterfront terminal and office park in Shanghai (AJ 25.11.10) – and who has since formed good links with Sparch, the inheritors of the project – has recently been back in touch with Alsop in his new RMJM studio and brokered a huge new masterplan project for what Alsop dubbed ‘China’s Florida’. Why not go with Sparch, you might ask, which has done a brilliant job on the Shanghai International Cruise Terminal?

Furthermore, in what must be a tough deal to take, Alsop has wrestled lucrative commissions for new stations for the Toronto Transit Commission back from Alsop Sparch, the firm he walked away from last summer. Why? Because the client wanted Alsop himself on board. His talent, but just as importantly, his fame, has proved essential to the commission. After all, his former colleagues at Alsop Sparch would have certainly done a very good job.

It may be hard to admit – and even harder to accept your own role in maintaining the status quo – but the truth is that the architectural profession is ego-driven and fame-obsessed and has been since it came into being. Why should we expect clients to behave any differently?

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