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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Starchitect or also stararchitect [ star + architect ] is a term used to describe architects whose celebrity and critical acclaim have transformed them into idols of the architecture world and may even have given them some degree of fame amongst the general public. Celebrity status is generally associated with avant-gardist novelty. Developers around the world have proven eager to sign up "top talent" (starchitects) in hopes of convincing reluctant municipalities to approve large developments, of obtaining financing or of increasing the value of their buildings. A key characteristic is that the architect's designs are almost always iconic and highly visible within the site or context.


The Bilbao Effect and the rise of 'wow-factor' architecture

Buildings are frequently regarded as profit opportunities and creating 'scarcity' or a certain degree of uniqueness gives further value to the investment. The balance between functionality and avant-gardism has influenced many property developers. For instance, architect-developer John Portman found that building skyscraper hotels with vast atriums - which he did in various US cities during the 1980s - was more profitable than maximizing floor area.

However, it was the rise of postmodern architecture during the late 1970s and early 1980s that gave rise to the idea that star status in the architectural profession was about an avant-gardism linked to popular culture - which, it was argued by postmodern critics such as Charles Jencks, had been derided by modernist architecture. In response, Jencks argued for "double coding"; i.e. that postmodernism could be understood and enjoyed by the general public and yet command "critical approval". The star architects from that period often built little or their best-known works were so-called "paper architecture", unbuilt or even unbuildable schemes, yet well known through frequent reproduction in architectural magazines: e.g. Léon Krier, Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi and James Stirling. As postmodernism went into decline, due to its associations with vernacular and traditionalism, its avant-gardist credentials suffered, and celebrity shifted back towards Modernist avant-gardism.

But in parallel with post-modernism an undercurrent of modernism persisted, often championing progress by means of experimenting with technology - for instance in the work of Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Cathal Morgan, the latter two having designed the Pompidou Centre (1977) in Paris, which received both popular and critical acclaim. What this so-called High-tech architecture showed was that an industrial aesthetic - an architecture characterized as much by urban grittiness as engineering efficiency - had popular appeal. This was also somewhat evident in the so-called Deconstructionist architecture, for instance the use by Frank Gehry of chainlink fencing, raw plywood and other industrial materials in designs for residential architecture.

With urban generation from the turn of the twentieth century picking up, economists forecasted that globalization and the powers of multi-national corporations would shift the balance of power away from nation states towards individual cities, which would then compete with neighbouring cities and cities elsewhere for the most lucrative modern industries, and which increasingly in major Western Europe and US cities did not include manufacturing. Thus cities set about 'reinventing themselves', giving precedence to the value given by culture. Municipalities and non-profit organizations hope the use of a Starchitect will drive traffic and tourist income to their new facilities. With the popular and critical success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, by Frank Gehry, in which a rundown area of a city in economic decline brought in huge financial growth and prestige, the media started to talk about the so-called "Bibao factor"; a star architect designing a blue-chip, prestige building was thought to make all the difference in producing a landmark for the city. Similar examples are the Imperial War Museum North (2002), Manchester, UK, by Daniel Libeskind, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland, by Steven Holl, and the Seattle Central Library (2004), Washington, USA, by OMA.

The origin of the phrase "wow-factor" architecture is uncertain, but has been used extensively in both the UK and USA to promote avant-gardist buildings within urban regeneration since the late 1990s. It has even taken on a more scientific aspect, with money made available in the UK to study the significance of the factor. In research carried out in Sussex University, UK, in 2000, interested parties were asked to consider the "effect on the mind and the senses" of new developments.<ref>Paul Kelso, "Architects urged to go for the 'wow factor' in designs for Britain's new public buildings", The Guardian, November 27, 2000.</ref> In an attempt to produce a "delight rating" for a given building, architects, clients and the intended users of the building were encouraged to ask: "What do passers-by think of the building?", "Does it provide a focal point for the community?" "Performance indicators" are also being produced by the UK Construction Industry Council, so that bodies commissioning new buildings will be encouraged to consider whether the planned building has "the wow factor" in addition to more traditional concerns of function and cost.

The Wow-Factor has also been taken up by American architecture critics such as New York Times architecture critics Herbert Mushamp and Nicolai Ouroussof, in their arguments that the city needs to be "radically" reshaped by new towers. Discussing a project for a new skyscraper at 80 South Street, near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, by Spanish Starchitect Santiago Calatrava, Ouroussof mentions how Calatrava's apartments are conceived as self-contained urban refuges, $30,000,000 prestige objects for the global elites: "If they differ in spirit from the Vanderbilt mansions of the past, it is only in that they promise to be more conspicuous. They are paradises for aesthetes." (Nicolai Ouroussof, "The New New York Skyline", The New York Times, September 5, 2004)

Yesterday's starchitects

Dead Starchitects

This list highlights architects who were working primarily in the early to mid 1900s, before the term "starchitect" was commonly used. The rise of mass media in the mid-1900s changed the way that the general public perceives architecture, and therefore, changed the nature of architecture itself - culminating in the currently pejorative connotations of "starchitect" as a label.

See also

Pritzker Prize

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Starchitect" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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