Sunday, December 16, 2007

Times critic Ouroussoff offers starchitect defense, but what about public review?

A New York Times Week in Review lead article headlined Let the ‘Starchitects’ Work All the Angles is summarized as "A big name on the blueprint doesn’t mean sellout at play. It may mean visionary at work."

Though Atlantic Yards is not mentioned, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff continues his implicit defense of AY architect Frank Gehry, declaring that 1) it's good that starchitects are working on major projects; 2) the architects have no power over a development's scale or density; and 3) it's up to the public to do the hard work to discern the difference between cynical and sincere agendas.

Those are not unreasonable arguments, but Ourousoff fails to acknowledge that starchitects, by virtue of their fame, may in fact have some power, and that the public's capacity for discernment is aided or hindered by the effort by the starchitect's clients to survive what he calls "an often tricky public review process."

Starchitect defense

The article begins:
IT’S hard to pinpoint when the “starchitect” became an object of ridicule. The term is a favorite of churlish commentators, who use it to mock architects whose increasingly flamboyant buildings, in their minds, are more about fashion and money than function.
Often the attacks are a rehash of the old clich├ęs. Cost overruns and leaky roofs are held up as evidence of yet another egomaniacal artist with little concern for the needs of us, the little people. (As a rule, if a roof leaks in a Frank Gehry building it’s headline news; if the building was designed by a hack commercial architect, the leak is ignored, at least as news.)...
The more serious criticism comes from those inside the profession who see a move into the mainstream as a sellout.


Shift in clients

But Ouroussoff, acknowledging a modicum of truth to the concerns, traces it back to a shift in clients, from public entities to private ones, including, yes, the Atlantic Yards developer:
The real issue here is not the architects’ egos but a significant shift in the kind of clients they serve. In the United States, the enlightened homeowners and high-minded cultural institutions that made up the bulk of these architects’ commissions a decade ago have now been joined by mainstream developers like Forest City Ratner or Hines — multibillion-dollar corporations who see an alliance with a high-profile architect as both a chance to raise their own profiles and to help push their projects through an often tricky public review process.


While no one's hands are clean, Ouroussoff, as he has done in the past, sticks up for the architects:
But from the architect’s perspective, working with mainstream developers is also a chance to step out of the narrow confines of high culture and have a more direct impact on centers of everyday life that were once outside their reach, from shopping malls to entire business districts.

Not their fault

Ouroussoff concludes that it's not the architect's fault, passing off the responsibility, as he did with his 6/4/06 Atlantic Yards review, onto the public sector:
Architects have no control over a development’s scale or density; nor do they control the underlying social and economic realities that shape it. But what serious architect wouldn’t want to take up the challenge? And why should such an immense responsibility be turned over to hacks? Why wouldn’t we welcome the input of our most imaginative talents? The point is to create an environment where they can produce their best work.


Indeed, he points to a design for Hines by Jean Nouvel that he calls stunning, while a Santiago Calatrava’s "flashy transportation building" in Lower Manhattan "looks like a shameful waste of public funds."

However, it's not quite true that architects have no control. Nearly two years ago, Gehry said about Atlantic Yards, "If I think it got out of whack with my own principles, I’d walk away."

His conclusion:
In the end, it is the public’s responsibility to do the hard work of parsing the difference between superficial creations designed to cover up a hidden, cynical agenda, and sincere efforts to create a more enlightened vision of a civilization that is evolving at a brutal pace.

Indeed--so maybe the Times should report on Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff's belated misgivings about the Atlantic Yards process.

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