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Franchise starchitecture

Back in 2014, Witold Rybczynski (who taught at Penn while I was there) wrote an article in The New York Times Style Magazine called The Franchising of Architecture. In it, he argued against the trend of “starchitecture.” 

Here’s an excerpt:

“Architecture, however, is a social art, rather than a personal one, a reflection of a society and its values rather than a medium of individual expression. So it’s a problem when the prevailing trend is one of franchises, particularly those of the globe-trotters: Renzo, Rem, Zaha and Frank. It’s exciting to bring high-powered architects in from outside. It flatters a city’s sense of self-importance, and fosters the perception of a place as a creative hotbed. But in the long run it’s wiser to nurture local talent; instead of starchitects, locatects.”

Following this, James Russell (a longtime architecture critic) wrote a searing rebuttal called The Stupid Starchitect Debate. He called Witold’s story a piece of utter laziness and urged us to stop whining about celebrity architecture.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Celebrity architecture is not a franchise (McDonalds is a franchise), but branding. Branding is repellently ubiquitous, and it is pure romanticism to think architecture can escape a trend that so powerfully guides spending. A friend became a museum director in part because building a new building was part of the job. I thought he would bring up an energetic young local talent, but he ended up with an international big name because, he said, only the stars would bring in the donors. That’s sad, but emblematic of an era when private wealth builds the cultural facilities the public won’t pay for. That’s why celebrity architects are brands—a title none of them sought, though all are adept at exploiting. Even wealthy, sophisticated trustees like to bask in the glow of a name that’s got cachet, rather than look hard for someone with obvious talent but who is not well known.”

This is a fascinating debate. And I would be curious to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

My own view is that, yes, it is wonderfully romantic to think that we can go back to a period of time when London architecture was designed only by English architects, Paris architecture designed only by French architects, and so on. But the world has changed. The genie is out of the bottle on that one.

I also don’t think that brand needs to be a dirty word in the context of architecture. There’s value in brand equity. And everything can be construed as a brand. This blog is part of my personal brand. That’s our world.

The problem I have with this line of thinking is when architecture gets reduced to style, to form, to a veneer. Architecture is an opportunity to solve problems and respond to real (including local) constraints. That also creates value – arguably much more value. And I don’t believe that only “locatects” have the ability to respond to that challenge.

There’s so much more that can be said about this topic.

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