The Past Fifty Years in Architecture: Forgetable

July 20, 2010

Vanity Fair, a magazine known mainly for its chic fashion spreads and outrageous covers, has decided to wade into the murky waters of architectural culture with “best” list for the last half century. If you weren’t depressed enough by the news from the BP oil spill or the war in Afganistan, leaf through the picks here and weep for the sorry state of our built environment. You’ll find a cavalcade of lavishly expensive cultural baubles disguised as buildings, most with little to offer society amidst a global environmental crisis. Architectural bling bling sells magazines.

In the interest of full disclosure, or perhaps to instill jealousy and envy among the design elite, the magazine actually published the voting results from its “distinguished” list of critics, architects and artists. It will come as no surprise that many of the architects voted for their own projects, encouraging their cronies to do the same. Hence Bernard Tschumi’s woeful Parc La Vilette project from the 1980s was listed in the top 20 with only three votes. The same was true of Steven Holl’s Nelson Atkins addition, Daniel Liebeskind’s grotesque Holocaust Museum in Berlin, and the CCTV monster in Beijing by Rem Koolhaas (who had three top vote getters, each with tepid support) and a number of other buildings with little claim to immortal status. Only two buildings seemed to get universal acclaim from the voters: the flashy Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Gehry, and the quietly distinguished de Menil Collection in Houston by Renzo Piano, built 30 years apart but  light years apart in their approaches to the display of art.

One could spend pages analyzing the cultural zeitgeist that spawned this glitzy, megalomaniacal group of avant-garde shouters. However, since I doubt that more than a handful will draw more than passing interest 50 years from now it is more useful to note that a few prescient critics did not agree with the starchitects about which recent buildings deserve universal acclaim. Kenneth Frampton chose a building designed in the 1960s, Le Corbusier’s concrete Firminy church, as the best work of architecture built in the 21st century (it wasn’t constructed until 2006). Martin Filler refused to name a starchitect-designed building on his ballot–he cast a vote for a school in Burkina Faso by an unknown architect. Leon Krier and Michael Graves were courageous enough to pick non-Modernist buildings along with some by LeCorbusier. Several works by such brilliant architects as Alvaro Siza and Jose Rafael Moneo got votes but didn’t make the photo album.

Perhaps most telling, given the historical myopia that infects our world, is the fact that architects who led such lists in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Louis Kahn, James Stirling, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, and Alvar Aalto, were hardly remembered among the new cognoscenti. Only one masterpiece, Stirling’s Neue Stadtsgalerie in Frankfurt, appeared from that group. Several undisputed masterpieces, such as Kahn’s capitol at Dacca and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, received no votes. Our leading architects are suffering from amnesia. Dementia can’t be far behind.

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