Too Many Stars, Not Enough Sky?

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Something of a cri de couer over the weekend by Hugh Pearman in The Sunday Times of London, registering his exasperation over the global frenzy to commission buildings by the familiar roster of architecture stars. I disagree, but I lived through the ’80s and ’90s in New York, when much was built and almost all of it was middling and worse.

The turnaround could be said to have begun in 2000 in the work of high profile architects, with the LVMH headquarters by Christian de Portzamparc, a Pritzker winner, and with the Rose Center, a glass box planetarium by James Stewart Polshek. Then the Museum of Folk Art by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien upped the ante for intricate interiors. Richard Meier’s West Side apartment towers gave Modernism back its good name. Even Yoshio Taniguchi’s redesign of MoMA, a building that God knows has its shortcomings, offers, in the three sided exterior courtyard around the sculpture garden, one of the most elegant exercises in Modernist thinking I know of anywhere in the world. Finally, with Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower and Frank Gehry’s newly opened IAC Headquarters, you could say the bar had been definitively raised.

A whole city of starchitecture might be hard to take, but trust me we’re in no danger of getting that. Builders, not architects rule, so mediocrity generally has the upper hand. (You have heard, perhaps, of the Freedom Tower they’re putting up where the World Trade Center used to be?) After decades of stagnation we live in a moment of genuinely new thinking in architecture, which may be the only art — the only one — of which that would be true. Buildings by the small, glamorous phalanx of architects doing that thinking are seedbeds of inspiration for cities crammed with dull boxes. I can put up with their designer eyewear and their sometimes imperial manner if they can do anything to turn that tide.

In the Sunday Times Pearman actually looks back longingly on the days when you only got one challenging new building every decade or so. Is he serious?