Good urbanism and the "starchitects"

There's been a lot of buzz lately about a not-so-friendly exchange between the Project for Public Space's Fred Kent and erudite "star architect" Frank Gehry during a public interview with Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The heavily-abbreviated description is that Kent, in his capacity as an audience member posing a question, challenged the effect of Gehry's works on public space. Gehry took offense to this, and dismissed Kent's claim as not being supported by the numbers. It's easier to point to the video of the event (fast forward to 54:00) or a description of the incident by The Atlantic's James Fallows.

The question of which man was in the right could be argued endlessly and, indeed, has been on Fallows's site as well as City Comforts. Was Gehry being condescending in his response? Or was Kent just "trolling" the interview in search of self-promotion, as Gehry suggests? Though interesting from a dramatic standpoint, that debate is much less consequential than the questions about "starchitects" and urbanism that the incident raises.

If Kent wanted to call out a prominent architect for neglecting public spaces and the urban fabric, he could have chosen a more viable target than Frank Gehry. In fact, if one goes on to listen the next question posed in that interview, Gehry goes on to talk about context and space in a very reasoned manner.

At the same time though, cases such as the rise and fall of Richard Rogers's design for London's Chelsea Barracks redevelopment illustrate both the degree to which the urban fabric can be ignored by the starchitects, and how doing so can be a perilous decision, even for them. While Rogers seems to be trying to paint his removal from the project as an abuse of royal power or a matter of traditional vs. modern aesthetics, architect Robert Adam sees it as a reaction away from modernist superblock design patterns to a more populist new urban approach. Says Adam:

There may be life for starchitects for a few years yet as desert monarchs take time to catch up with the mood of the times, but the way it’s going is that good places matter more than big names, and Chelsea Barracks, with all its publicity, could be the watershed for the new era.

Is the humbling of Rogers going to signal a new dawn when just being famous is not going to be enough to allow you to drive over local people, and conspire with star-struck bureaucrats to flummox elected committees? One thing that hasn’t changed much since the eighties is public taste for architecture. There’s good research evidence for this and any cultural historian will tell you that fundamentals like this don’t change quickly.

So perhaps, in the face of international contracts and brand-name recognition, urbanists are forgetting the more human-scale momentum of their own movement. The notion of livable places is gaining traction everywhere, and "starchitects" are going to have to start reflecting this in their designs. Ones like Gehry already have, to a limited degree. Causing a spectacle can only foster resentment and the incorrect notion that New Urbanism is incompatible with cutting edge design.


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