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Opinion: Why starchitecture fails society

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Architects should take the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to protect the users of their buildings from their worst tendencies, writes Alan Berman

Gehry gets the Getty gong, Hadid gets RIBA Gold: they display brilliant creative imaginations and, together with architects of similar ilk, have the skill to marshal large forces to erect extraordinary buildings. They overcome all obstacles, defy convention – defy even gravity with their warped planes, jutting forms, huge overhangs, jumbles piled high – experimental and mind-bending buildings of unrivalled complexity.

An industry-funded Oxford psychology professor experiments with shapes, designing bottles curvy and bulbous, cubic, tall or twisted. Cosmetic bottles to shout in the shop. Corporate buildings to shout on the street. Novel, ostentatious and attention-seeking designers play to the market: the devil drives and even the best brains are in marketing now.

Yet these prize-winning exercises in excess fail on two major counts: they generally serve little social purpose and they inculcate a mindset in which, for some but by no means all, the architects’ artistic proclivities trump users’ needs.

The avant-garde that gave rise to the modern movement developed forms no less new, no less radical and quite as photogenic. But they were driven by an overarching social vision: a desire to improve the physical and social conditions of 19th Century cities, addressing issues such as affordable healthy housing and safe spaces for work and for healthcare.

The early masters created meaningful architecture in a profession that was then socially attuned. Designing for rich and poor they made buildings which combine a rationality of structure and means with rich spatial and volumetric experiences – designs rooted in user’s need for comfort. Certainly many of their utopian visions were corrupted by the megalomaniac tendencies of Le Corbusier and his acolytes.

Nevertheless much of their work still inspires and shows us that those architects had a vision beyond the creation of novelty for its own sake. Undeniably some architects today address these issues but there is little evidence among professional leaders of a mission to use architecture as a force for social good.

Seldom do they ask simple questions such as ‘Are my bizarrely shaped rooms easily used?

Today’s much-lauded work by starchitects offers little to the physical public realm – also a matter of social concern. Historic, much-loved public realms that are formed by unostentatious buildings provide calm backgrounds for civilised life and social exchange and also contain important symbolic monuments that sit comfortably beside more modest accommodation: richer, bigger and more ostentatious the important buildings may be, but nevertheless they form part of a decorous whole. Now, super-clients engage super-architects to design self-promoting buildings whose frantic forms and bright shiny materials can destroy the cohesion of street frontages and public spaces: individualistic buildings for atomised communities, architecture without a conscience.

The second failure of self-regarding, image-obsessed architecture is at an extraordinarily basic level: the failure to meet users’ needs. Clients with extensive building programmes who engage many architects often give us their feedback. One found he had considerably less space than the brief because the architect insisted on designing the whole extension as a huge cantilever, so enormous trusses took up much floor space and much of the budget, when a line of small columns would have done just as well and no one but the architect would know the difference.

Another client’s starchitect promised a naturally ventilated, user-controlled building, but only giants can reach the windows to open them, while it is nigh impossible to remove the big leaves of a nearby tree that fall on the flat glass roofs; and the study desks – the raison d’être of the building – are difficult to use. Yet another building has a fashionably wild and disordered facade using over a dozen different materials – yet two were quite enough for the likes of Mies, Corb, Gropius and Kahn (Yale University Art Gallery, 1953, pictured above right). For today’s grand architect such complaints are petty stuff: what the starchitect wants the starchitect gets, while the client pays and users are left with a daily struggle.

Architects’ powers of persuasion and brilliant images anaesthetise committees, who say ‘yes’ to the most absurd, fashion-following designs. The images of these tragic tales of hubris and meaningless excess travel the world; acolytes ape their heroes, architectural students swoon and the tricks and tropes appear everywhere, poorly executed and copied in cities or deserts, displaying total disregard for context or meaning. No matter. The images seduce aspirant young journalists, who give the architect wide media coverage: the marketing wheel turns, the next client is seduced while the last one is left to cry – or to sue.

The profession complains when clients pay project managers to keep designs under control, and increasingly wrest power from architects. Yet still the profession fails to examine itself. While the medical profession’s practitioners constantly review the success or failure of procedures, architects carry out little post-occupancy evaluation. Seldom do they ask simple questions such as ‘Are my bizarrely shaped rooms easily used? Is an all-glass wall comfortable to sit against? Do the new materials perform well?’ It’s time that architects were obliged to take the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath and undertake to work above all in users’ (their real clients) interest – or at least undertake to do no harm.

Architects have the creative powers to do what money men and managers cannot do: they can think outside the box and break new ground. The profession is uniquely positioned to create solutions, not only with design initiatives but by using its powers of persuasion to push at the levers of power. Yet it continues with its self-obsessions, reneging on its responsibilities and becoming increasingly irrelevant.

It’s time the profession repudiated the empty rhetoric and the excess and instead harnessed its unique problem-solving capabilities to issues of social significance: time to produce straightforward, beautifully crafted decorous buildings that above all work well and which will get better, rather than worse, over time. They may be dubbed dull and they won’t satisfy the fashionistas nor the market, but they will do what buildings should do: satisfy and delight the people who use them. It is such buildings that deserve the prizes.

Alan Berman remains consultant to Berman Guedes Stretton Architects and also works as Studio Berman

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