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Why ‘starchitects’ stand apart from modern-day celebrity culture

Paul Finch
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Amid back-biting, bickering and knee-jerk soundbites, Paul Finch is thankful that some people are still behaving like grownups

From last week’s AJ: ‘The RIBA Future Trends Workload Index for May remains positive, with private housing and commercial remaining the most strongly performing sectors.’ Can that be right? Even though it was before the general election, weren’t architects and lots of other people predicting economic collapse after a year of post-Brexit wrangling? Wasn’t the sky supposed to have fallen in and hens stopped laying?

I am writing this from sunny Barcelona during a short visit, during which I watched film of a Barça vs Manchester United European football game from 1994, which Barça won comfortably. But what struck me about the game, compared to the diet of diving, hysteria and prima-donna antics of both players and managers in today’s Premiership (aka the ‘League of Greed’), was how grown-up those 1994 teams were – both players and management, though most of the players were pretty young.

Unfortunately, the rise and rise of celebrity culture (including footballers), a debased media and a political class more interested in bickering and back-biting than sound government, appear now to be the order of the day. The extraordinary attacks by politicians on the former judge who has agreed to run the Grenfell Tower inquiry are depressing. Even mature people such as the mayor of London can fall victim to the belief that inflammatory media soundbites are the right way to respond to a febrile atmosphere.

Similarly, attacks on the media as producers of ‘fake news’ are highly unimpressive. We are invited to think that if we read something we do not like, then it cannot be true. President Trump’s suggestion that there were more people at his inauguration than at President Obama’s was absurd, but also dangerous inasmuch as it undermines language – the fake news wasn’t fake at all, just embarrassing (to him). Learning to live with embarrassment is part of growing up.

The difference between major international architects and most of the people who make the gossip columns is the architects actually do stuff

In general, the world of architecture seems to have avoided much of the mess that occurs when language, truth and logic go flying out of the window. No doubt this is partly because of the scientific nature of design and construction: things do in fact stand up or fall down, on the basis of steady-state Newtonian physics, in a predictable manner. You still want structural engineers who get sums right, rather than the products of an education system that thinks it is fine to award qualifications to people who get most of them wrong.

You could argue that the world of ‘starchitecture’ is an aspect of celebrity culture, but there is an important difference between major international architects and most of the people who make the gossip columns: the architects actually do stuff, and to get to a position where they are known to large numbers of people across the globe, they have to be pretty damn good. Moreover, they don’t get to that position by talk but by action over long periods of time, involving different political and economic environments in different countries. It is not enough to be fashionable, which is by definition a temporary condition. They have to behave like grownups.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask of our civic and governmental leaders that, at a critical time in our history, they stop behaving like children, keep quiet unless they have something considered to say, and stop trying to exploit every form of media, including social media (or anti-social media as it could easily be called). They end up pandering to a media class with the attention span of a gnat, and earn no respect from the public.

Barcelona, as ever, was great by the way.

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