Kriston Capps’s piece for CityLab, “Leave Starchitects Alone,” is filled with so much hooey that I am embarrassed to be inflicting it on my readers. It is part of the continuing effort to tar opposition to modern architecture as partisan and conservative. If the uglification of our built environment is a political issue – and I wish it were – then why do both political parties seem equally reluctant to masticate this big, juicy porterhouse steak?
In particular, Capps is miffed at the growing popularity of the word starchitect to denote an all-purpose bogeyman. Capps misconstrues the word and the meaning attached to it. There is (again, unfortunately) almost no political or partisan content in the widespread public distaste for starchitects and starchitecture. Starchitects are disliked not because they are wasteful – though often they are – but because their work is ugly. By ugly, I mean intentionally disruptive to the beauty of cities.
Frank Gehy’s unpopular design for a proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower has been hooted across the political spectrum because it is ugly. Its few positive reviews embrace its essential purpose as an attack on traditional monument design in Washington. That is a good enough reason for conservatives to dislike it, of course, but liberals dislike it, too.
Capps correctly asserts that it is “quiet for a Gehry,” and it is. But it is not “neoclassical” – that is absurd; it is anti-classical. Capps is trying to set up a false scenerio to dismiss conservative critics of Gehry as engaging in pure political partisanship despite the alleged “conservatism” of its design. But even he admits that the National Review piece he targets (“An Awful Enthusiasm“) expresses admiration for Gehry’s only skyscraper, at 8 Spruce St., in New York City. (I’ve written in its defense as well.)
The bottom line is that starchitects are almost all modernists (Robert A.M. Stern, who is known for his classical buildings, is the only American exception), and almost all of their work undermines what most people conceive as the beauty of cities. This, whatever Kriston Capps may think, is the only reason why modern architecture is so widely disliked.
By the way, here are my thoughts on the word starchitect in a post, “In defense of ‘starchitect,'” about a year ago. Coincidentally, it criticizes a piece by James Russell, the critic who has just announced his new municipal architecture job in New York City. Good luck to him!
Tip of the cap to Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society in Washington, for sending this CityLab piece to TradArch.