I rise to defend not the practice of starchitecture or the starchitects who perpetrate its follies on an innocent public. But the word starchitect has come under attack for the very reason that I like the word and use it myself: starchitect is the critique of an idea bound up in one word.
The esteemed architecture critic James Russell, in “The Stupid Starchitect Debate,” reacts against Beverly Willis’s New York Times piece “Here’s to the Demise of Starchitecture!” by dumping on her choice of words. “The last few years has seen the rise of the snarky, patronizing term ‘starchitect” (a term I refuse to use outside this context, much to the annoyance of editors seeking click-bait).”
Yes, the word is snarky and patronizing. Given that it signifies celebrity architect, and in particular modernist architect, it should be snarky and patronizing. But if that’s all it were I would not use it myself. And I’m not really so sure it is always considered negative by its subject. Although Frank Gehry claims to dislike the word, I think his attitude is fabricated for public consumption. Inside, he probably wallows in it.
In any event, words are the subject of constant pushme pullyou over their meaning and connotation. If starchitect has a negative connotation it is because actual starchitects and their camp followers have not worked hard enough to wrap the word in the glitterati garb that they would naturally prefer. Let’s face it. Architects, and modernist architects in particular, are not exactly the cat’s meow in the eyes of most of the public.
As a connoisseur of neologisms – I almost wrote glitteratical in the last paragraph – the word starchitect is almost as graceful in its ability to neatly wrap up an idea as the word crudscape, coined by James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere to denote the commercial landscape that degrades suburbia throughout America.
I am a lesser practitioner of the dubious art of coinership, but even I once debated the late William Safire on who coined the phrase Fourth Estate to mean the press. Safire identified William Hazlitt (my favorite writer) as the term’s inventor when in fact Hazlitt meant the phrase to mean a mob in the politics of the nation. In fact, in his essay “On Familiar Style,” Hazlitt condemned the practice of coining words. He declared that he would never do it himself, and would italicize any coinage he was forced to repeat. But Safire is not around to defend himself, so I will cease this line of discourse.
Starchitect’s negative connotation, while not immutable, is natural because the modern architects who tend to be defined by it are considered a negative force in the beauty of the nation and the world. As for the idea of starchitecture itself, its practitioners should consider themselves to have dodged a bullet if a negative descriptor is the worst they must suffer at the hands of architecture criticism, not to mention the world whose cultures are insulted regularly be virtually all modern architecture.