Good architects outgrow their fanboy (or fangirl) tendencies and develop real style
I’m not a fan of fan art, says Rory Olcayto
Despite being a fan myself (I still queue up to meet my ‘heroes’, get books and comics signed, ask nerdy questions - the more obscure the better - and hope my devotion will actually ‘mean’ something), I’m not a fan of fan art.
Fan art is devotional by nature. Take film-maker JJ Abrams, director of both the recent Star Trek films and the forthcoming Star Wars movies. His first film, 2010’s Super 8, was a self-conscious Spielberg homage, riffing on classics such as ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The setting is suburban America. The lead actors are kids and there’s a friendly alien, too. There are big set-piece action scenes and great special effects. All the Spielberg elements are in place. But the film fails to emotionally engage, dwelling instead on spectacle.
Abrams grew up on Spielberg movies. He even forged a friendship with him when he was just 14 and landed a gig editing the Oscar-winning director’s home movies (on Super 8, incidentally) after a friend spotted the teenager’s talent in a film competition.
Early on in Super 8, there is a huge, explosive train crash, which, if you were anywhere near, you wouldn’t survive. Yet Super 8 ‘s stars do, dodging the raining, flaming debris with nimble sidesteps and blind luck. Compare the scene with Jurassic Park, and the sequence in which a tyrannosaurus rex terrorises a young girl and her brother, only for them to narrowly escape, battered and bruised. Regardless of the fantastical situation, you believe it. You buy it. You’re emotionally engaged.
It’s something to do with character development, clearly, but also the parameters Spielberg sets: the whole scene largely takes place in the back of a car and dwells on the dinosaur trying to drag the kids out through the sun-roof. Can you imagine … yes you can. Scary. In Super 8 the train crash goes on for far too long and too big to be believable - it’s more like a nuclear bomb exploding. You don’t believe it. You don’t buy it. Can you imagine … no you can’t. The Spielbergisms Abrams admires so much are all there but they don’t add up. It feels hollow.
Architecture as a form of creativity is particularly susceptible to the fan art syndrome. Choosing a hero and being self-consciously influenced by them is part of what it means to be an architect. You could argue that Isi and Andy’s Corb-inspired work for Gillespie Kidd & Coia (especially Cardross) is fan art - good fan art - while Benson + Forsyth’s later projects, such as The Pod in Nottingham, its retro-Modernist aesthetic too boldly expressed, is of the less good variety.
More often, good architects outgrow their influences and their fanboy (or fangirl) tendencies. John Lautner began as an ardent follower of Frank Lloyd Wright but, within a few years of establishing his own practice, his own style began to emerge. 1949’s Shaffer House (pictured) for example, is pure FLW, whereas 1960’s Chemosphere is pure John Lautner. Isi and Andy’s mode of expression too, developed beyond their Corb obsession. Wadham College in Oxford is a long way from Cardross, stylistically as well as geographically.
Elsewhere in the AJ I’ve written about Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partner’s Neo Bankside, resembling a kind of a MyFirstRogers™. It has all the Rogers elements in place, bright colours, external lifts and a steel exo-skeleton (purely aesthetic in this case) but feels less vital than the firm’s ’80s classics. Maybe it’s not a problem - all the buildings mentioned have their, er, fans - but one thing’s certain: you’ll know a fan art building when you see one.