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Iconic buildings don’t make great cities

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Star architects get their status because they are good. But why can’t their talents be deployed across cities as a whole? Asks Paul Finch

The recent BBC television series on the five British architects who have shaped at least part of the modern world was a reminder that it is easy to take for granted groups of talented people who are more or less contemporaries. One wrongly assumes they are part of a natural order, rather as athletics fans became accustomed to the idea that because we had Coe, Ovett and Cram, we would dominate middle-distance running forever.

With successors like Hadid, Chipperfield and Alsop and, following them, individuals like Adjaye and Heatherwick and practices like Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the old guard of UK architecture will not be the last group with global influence. But they might be the last generation to have emerged in an era that had yet to experience the world of ‘starchitecture’ or a client culture obsessed with ‘icons’.

In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, it was enough to design good architecture to get the recognition of your peers and occasionally some acknowledgement from the public. The building said ‘Here I am’, not ‘Look at me!’ and if one did say the latter, it tended to be of the paper architecture variety. That all went with the triumph of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, after which ever city and cultural organisation assumed it needed an architectural badge of honour, most easily achieved by using the small group of architects who had established themselves globally through competitions, particularly international ones.


Something changed with Bilbao, not least because, unless you were a fan of transporter bridges or ports, there were few compelling reason to visit the city until the Guggenheim came along. It wasn’t even the capital of the Basque country (Vitoria still is). Gehry has been in heavy demand ever since, though he is at pains to point out he does not respond to a brief by thinking about iconic architecture in the Bilbao sense. Nevertheless, that victory meant he is able to charge premium fees, and personal fees if you want to see him in person. Foster and Hadid can demand the same.

The travelling circus of superstars who seem to crop up on each international competition shortlist, almost invariably invited, have emerged in every part of the world where commercial, cultural and civic clients are anxious to secure cultural validation or exploit the apparently miraculous powers of architecture to generate everything from democracy to urban regeneration to general happiness. But is the final product, whether individual building or new piece of city, any better because of this new aspect of architectural culture?

Not according to Davide Ponzini and Michele Nastasi from the Politecnico di Milano. Their book Starchitecture: Scenes, Actors and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities is a brilliant debunking exercise, full of texts and polemical images exposing the alienation, irrelevance and conflict affecting the stated aims of clients engaged in the icon game, and the built outcomes. Ponzini and Nastasi concluded an excellent presentation at the Architectural Association last week with the observation that architects should not be blamed for the degraded environments springing up on every continent. But they quite reasonably raised the question of where architectural responsibility lies in respect of promoting good masterplanning and good urbanism, inherently more important than one-off gestures. They also note that the Bilbao Guggenheim took place in the context of a massive EU investment programme across Spain: one building does not do much by itself.

The Guggenheim is still pretty amazing, though. Let’s not forget star architects get their status in the first place because they are rather good. But why can’t their talents be deployed across cities as a whole?


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