Lou Kahn vs. The Starchitects

May 21, 2010

Would Lou Kahn have accepted the Pritzker prize? Hard to say, though he probably would laugh at the concept of an architectural Nobel, or a Hollywood-chic building designer. Two stories in today’s New York Times give us some perspective on the often dichotomous world of architects.

In a human interest piece, a journalist questions an up-and-coming (meaning employed) young architect about his heroes and bete-noires. Though a graduate of the largely theory-obsessed Cooper Union, the young man finds Frank Gehry over-rated and seems to prefer elegant, classical geometries over blobs, shards and see-through buildings. Who is his favorite architect? Louis I. Kahn. He happens to be working on constructing Kahn’s subtle masterwork, the Roosevelt memorial on Roosevelt Island. An earnest practitioner actually helping to build something–now there’s a novel idea.

In a contrasting story somewhere near the “Style” section, people watchers crash this year’s lavish Pritzker party at Ellis Island. This year’s winners, partners in a little-known Japanese firm, are described largely in terms of what they are wearing (avant garde chic) and which wealthy patrons in attendance have commissioned work from them. Like most columns of this kind, a lot of ink is spilled on naming the star architects who won Pritzkers in the past, especially if they happen to be aboard the ferry to the island with the reporters. There are a lot of them. Apparently free from their offices due to the savage recession, they choose to be taken to a deserted island with otherwise hated rivals, where they will share a meal and perhaps be ferried back to Manhattan.

Once on Ellis Island, many in the group remark that this is their first visit to this hallowed landmark of American immigration–how quaint to be in buildings that sheltered the common man. Architecture, at least the Pritzker kind, aspires to much more–the arcane tastes of the elites who buy contemporary art. Poor Rafael Vinoly, the New York architect who most deserves the next Pritzker. He is, alas, an immigrant from Argentina. In order to stand out, he wears three pairs of designer eyeglasses–one around his neck, one on his nose, and one like a wreath on his head. Which metaphor would he choose I wonder: the albatross, the truffle pig, or the Greek God?

It is hard to imagine even the self-reflective Lou Kahn in such a group. Though his ego was at least as monumental as that of any current Pritzker laureate, he put building first on the agenda. It is fitting that Mr. Pritzker’s first honoree was Philip Johnson, the architect who made ephemeral stardom into a substitute for design talent, and ultimately, artistic integrity.

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