What is it about starchitecture?

Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals.
Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals, Switzerland.

The idea of the ‘starchitect’ – architects who are globally renown for their signature style in the design of buildings, has emerged as something of a phenomenon in recent years. It is a term coined to describe the so-called superstar architects whose work has emerged as iconic of its time. We think of architects such as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Peter Zumthor, and Tadao Ando – their work attracts millions of people simply to look at and experience their buildings. Starchitects have a significant position and profile in shaping public opinion and engagement with architecture; but whether they create ‘personality cults’ or encourage development and innovation in the field of architecture is not so certain. We decided to ask ourselves, what is it about starchitecture? For the purposes of gathering our thoughts, we have taken the term starchicture to mean iconic architecture designed by celebrity architects.

The starchitecture of ‘style’

Zaha Hadid is one starchitect whose style is undeniably a signature. Her personal aesthetic generally far outweighs any influence from locality or client. She creates fluid, curvaceous forms, so abstract that their concepts and purpose are not always clear. MVRDV have a reputation of pushing the boundaries as well as having a somewhat light-hearted approach to their architecture. Their designs are distinct for being out of the ordinary and unconventional. While the starchitect Tadao Ando does appear to consider each project in a more individual way, there are significant recurring themes in his style, creating a distinct architectural grammar. Throughout his work around the world, there is a language of exposed concrete, internally and externally, enclosing courtyards and voids to create spaces defined by shadow and light.

The staircase of the Vitra Conference Centre, by Tadao Ando.
The staircase of the Vitra Conference Centre, by Tadao Ando displays his distinctive style with material and light.

Most architects have their own aesthetic, method, or set of principles which inform their work. We would suggest that the stylistic difference between the individual style of an architect and that of a starchitect, is that in starchitecture the elements of the architect’s individuality are taken to an extreme. The starchitect generally remains true to their own principles of design above all other considerations, however that is not to say that starchitects do not innovate. At the MVRDV designed Book Mountain, a pyramidical public library in the Netherlands, what is most striking is the creative and unconventional form that is their signature. When we probe the design of the building a little further however, we also find new technologies that help to reduce the carbon footprint of running the building. This allows the glass building to operate without air conditioning in the summer; and with only minimal environmental controls in the winter. While many starchitect buildings are visually interesting and enjoyable to visit, we do not find the often repetitive nature of the overall aesthetic and form particularly innovative. Rather we suggest that it stems from a closed and exclusive design process, as opposed to addressing the wider issues of architecture. The fact that a Gerhy building consistently looks, well, like a Gehry building, is no more remarkable than the fact a Classical building looks like a Classical building. This does not make it ‘bad’ architecture, however nor does it necessarily make it remarkable architecture. It does, however, make it memorable architecture; and we would suggest that phenomenon of starchitecture is more of a branding phenomenon, than an architectural one. Starchitects are, too often, rather predictable.

A branding phenomenon?

The bathroom brand, Roca, chose Hadid to design their showroom and gallery in London’s Canary Wharf because of her signature style. But why did they choose Hadid? They chose Hadid because of her perceived brand value and the apparent affinity with their own brand – the flowing dynamics of her designs lend themselves easily to the idea of the nature of water.  They wanted, in their own words, to give ‘a real insight into the Roca brand with a designer interior underpinned by interactive technology’. Within architecture, this brand buy-in is not a phenomenon exclusively to Hadid. Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando, along with Zaha Hadid, have recently been chosen by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company to design cultural buildings for Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates. They are part of a trend in starchitects appointed to significant commissions in an attempt to replicate the so-called Bilbao effect.

The fire station on the Vitra campus,, Zaha Hadid's first building.
The fire station on the Vitra campus, Germany. Zaha Hadid’s first building showing the emergence of what became her signature ‘style’.

Perhaps it is worth straying away from the realms of architecture for a moment, to talk more generally about brand. Should architects strive to have a starchitect style for the purposes of building a successful brand, and hence a successful business? It is striking that generally the more successful a starchitecture brand becomes, the less innovative the architecture becomes. Or does the architect have a greater responsibility first to the built environment and the city as a whole? In short, we know that a building can be abstracted to become a physical manifestation of a brand, but should it? As of 2014, Forbes ranks Apple as the world’s most valuable brand – a beacon for other companies to follow. Apple’s brand value is derived from a mix of consumer opinion, product quality, iconic style. Its brand has made the company one of the most profitable and valuable companies of all time. A building however is not an iPhone that may be discarded after a few short years. Architecture, as a product, has a permanence that transcends that of almost every other industry. We would suggest that while there is a quantifiable brand value in the industry of starchitecture, the value is normally greater for the starchitect than for the city. It is striking that starchitect offices operate in a similar way to fashion houses, where the staff work towards fulfilling the ‘house style’ in order to present a consistent aesthetic from the fashion house, or in this case the starchitect office. In years to come, we may look back on starchitect designed buildings as an exceptional contribution to our cities, or we may look on them as flights of folly; the imprint of an ego within urban realm.

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