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As confident as I am that teams will continue to pay millions of dollars for star players and star surgeons will command top dollar, so am I also sure that the same underlying thinking maintains the starchitect. Capitalism follows the same form regardless of profession.


You know that the era of the stararchitect is over when Santiago Calatrava is designing stage sets.

I think this species of stararchitect is very much an arm of the monopolies and easy credit for the powers that be. The proud boasting and faux-regality was a spirit of the times and showed up in movies too (Gladiator, the Matrix, Lord of the Rings).

Rest assured, these same monopolies aren't struggling like the average joe, but it's bad optics and not apropos to appear rich. The CEO's getting large bonuses get made fun of in this finger pointing environment, so it's in the best interest of the elites to dress in rags and speak in gosh darn homilies about the family and good ol' American gumption.


There has always been an architect’s “star-making-machine”. You need look no further than Stanford White at the turn of the 20th century with him holding court at Madison Square Garden restaurant. From star-architects you get starchitecture. More recently Frank Gehry was featured on the cover of Architectural Record in the very early 1980’s, the first living architect to make it on the cover! In the 1990’s several articles appeared that took aim at “starchitecture” in museum design in which the building became the “art” and obfuscated the presence of the actual interior art. The example cited in Brian’s article of Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum is a case in point. Having said that, I would not call Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at JFK , 1956-62, a piece of starchitecture but a true effort at seeking new forms of architecture to reflect a perceived future of space travel and yes, fins on the 1959 Cadillac! Nevertheless, architecture has always been about light, materials and form with one of many goal of achieving a sense of place. What makes current architecture into a gymnast on steroids is the use of advanced technology for structural engineering and new materials that support these approaches. When Frank Gehry was in Portland several years ago, post Bilbao, he spoke with passion about his ability to do what he does due to his access to Boeing’s huge computer mainframe. Now that technology is more ubiquitous and what’s the point of having this technology if you can’t use it!
Back to the future as quoted by Brian, “McGuigan's Newsweek piece argues correctly that in the place of empty-calorie architectural candy is coming a more nutritious brand of design that has over the last decade established itself as the truer transformation in architecture: sustainability.” I find this prediction off the mark by a long shot. If this were true then all extant buildings are the future, past as prolog? The most sustainable building is the extant one. Sustainability is not a design theory but a tool in the black-bag of program objectives that fits in nicely with HVAC, solar, wind, low-E glass and gray water systems to name a few. A similar example can up a few years ago when Galen Cranz was in town to lecture on park design. Ms. Cranz is considered an expert on the nature and history of park design and teaches at Berkeley. When she gave a presentation on the past design and use of parks she talked about the design theories of the past, Olmsted, City Beautiful , pleasure grounds to play grounds etc. When she spoke of the current and projected POV on the future of park design she also spoke of sustainability as a guiding factor. The concept of architectural sustainability is much like the urban myth of espresso, a perception of high levels of caffeine but no real buzz. A modern sustainable building will never return on its investment which can take over 30-years while a building’s Life Cycle is only the same amount of time! While starchitecture may be on the wan it appears that the future is more like the 1960's redux but with a deconstructionist spin. Where will these architects go when that craze is dead and buried? My bigger fear is that someone will look at the Post-Mordom and want to redux that blind faith. Interesting to note that Richard Graves started out doing theatrical sets and that is where Calatrava is heading!

Brian Libby


Thanks for your interesting, intelligent comments.

I certainly don't think and didn't mean to say "all extant buildings are the future, past as prolog", as you put it. Rather, I just meant to speak about the culture of design moving toward a more integrated, collaborative process that involves owners, contractors, subcontractors and occupants rather than the culture of a design being handed over, then value engineered and so forth.


Brian, why are you constantly piggy backing and commenting on the articles of others rather than writing your own original pieces?

Douglas K.

I thought the Seattle Central Library looked really wild and impressive from the outside. Then I went in. It didn't work that well from the inside, at least for me. It didn't feel warm or welcoming, it was hard to find my way around, and there was this cluster of intimidating bright red hallways that just made me want to get the hell out. By the time I left, I felt pretty thankful that I go to Portland's main library on a regular basis, rather than that place.

If we're moving past the era of building flashy buildings for the sake of flash, then hallelujah! It's long overdue. I'm perfectly fine with "attractive and functional," especially if it's something I'm gonna use on a regular basis.


I'm hopeful the "era" is not over - and maybe a little doubtful too. Great buildings have always come from the hand of great architects, just like great paintings have come from the most talented among artists. These works push us to rethink the built environment in ways that astonish and please us - and yes, sometimes frustrate a little bit as we're challenged to adjust our thinking about what a museum or library should look like. (As much as I love our Central Library, Seattle's has had an impact on the science of building a library for good reason.)

I recently visited the new addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City; would I have preferred to have one of the South Waterfront architects to have designed that new wing? Hardly.

As much as I enjoy the addition to Portland Art Museum, in many ways that building hamstrings the museum's future growth - not to mention the clunkiness of the solution to getting people from building to building and the obvious misstep of having to post a sign for the public stating that "This is Not the Entrance to the Museum."

I'm confident the reasons that Portland doesn't have such "starchitect" structures are both complicated and simple to understand. Certainly at some point we'll think about building a better theater space, have a need for a concert hall, or embrace a modern art & design institution and have a need (hopefully recognized) for an important building to join our built environment.

Once built, no doubt we'll wonder why we waited so long.


Every architect wants to be a star. We got into the business with the fantasy that we could have control over the design and get our ideas built.
The reality is that it is a very collaborative process, which is not a bad thing at all. I do think that every project does need a good design lead. This architect may end up being a cheerleader or goaly for the design, but it is important that someone is keeping and eye on the whole.
Every firm that I have worked for has a boss who wants or wanted to be a star and still acts like they will be. They often like to pick on the "starts" out of jealousy and grumpiness.
I think the concept of the "starchitect" is silly. Instead of pointing fingers at the lucky folks who get to design the worlds great buildings, I think the label should be more like "bloated buildings" or something.
We have entered a period of lean. The new stars will be the ones who can do more with less and use less energy.
Hard times have almost always produce some of the most inspired thinking in architecture.

Greg Moore

Like anything, this is part of a cycle. Starchitecture isn't dead - it's probably just going into hibernation for the next 5-15 years. It will be back - perhaps more gaudy and prolific than before. However, in it's wake (perhaps unrelated, but we know how everything is connected in some way,) I do see the untimely temporal death of mid-sized and large Architectural firms on the horizon. Some are already being dismembered and devoured by large developers - particularly in economically hard hit areas. If I were looking to go back to school right now for a new career, I wouldn't be giving Architecture the time of day. Nope. I'd be looking at those Business and Engineering schools real hard. Then again, there are those who argue that struggle makes great art. Perhaps, as I think Brian is rightfully suggesting, it's a much needed shot in the arm for the profession.

Brian Libby

To "A", who asked, "Why are you constantly piggy backing and commenting on the articles of others rather than writing your own original pieces?"

My smart-aleck answer would be, "Well, because it's a blog, and that's what blogs do."

But more seriously, I would argue that I already do both original reporting and "piggy-backing" replies to others' articles.

A big part of what I enjoy about blogging versus regular journalism is a chance to respond to and start a conversation about other people's writing. Blogs, in my mind, are largely an ongoing conversation rather than just an article people read. In that spirit, I think (and so do thousands of other bloggers across the world) that it's not only OK to piggy-back, but is a new addition to the media landscape.

In the old world of journalism, writers wrote, readers read, and that was it save for maybe a little chatting about it at the dinner table or water cooler. Now it can be an ongoing conversation.

Scroll through past Portland Architecture posts and you will find countless examples of reporting that are original and that no other publication in the city, print or online, has covered. If I were only piggy-backing on others' articles, it might be a valid point to challenge me to do more. But I stand by the combination of original reporting and meta-media criticism I've done.

What's more, this blog has time and time again invited people to become contributors of their own to Portland Architecture, and virtually no one has ever come forward to do so. If there isn't enough original reporting, this blog has an open invitation to the community -- yourself included, "A" -- to make Portland Architecture what you want it to be.


And there is no lack of starchitects in Portland, just that there are three levels of starchitects as follows:

International Super Star (Gehry, Piano, Holl etc)
National Super Star (Olson, Maya Lin, Rose, etc)
Local Super Star (Holst, Allied Works, Skylab, etc)

Every metropolitan area has its local super star firms, but with Portland being so small and a veritable magnet for creative people, competition here is tough to emerge as a bona fide local super star, IMO.


Snap!! I actually find myself defending Brian on this one 'A.' While this blog frequently comments on topics or issues that I find mundane, I do like the fact that the format is informal and driven by local input.

Let's face it, architecture journalism in this country is pathetic. Our official AIA rag is 50% ads, and you are lucky to get more than a page or two of sound bites and images for complex projects. Pick up a german magazine and you'll actually see a detail you can learn from. Pick up a spanish periodical and you will read thoughtful conversations with the design team and get more than enough visual documentation to interpret a project. Sadly, I always learn more about US projects from outside publications. Architecture will never be as culturally or economically important to the average american as the Super Bowl or Seinfeld. Architects need to be better marketers, but less face it most of us don't have the personality or desire. Frankly I'd rather the AIA spend my money to hire CAA or a major marketing company to get the message out instead of sending me a 2-bit magazine each month.

Even worse are the few major newspapers and magazines that actually employee a full-time architecture critic on staff. All they have ever talked about are the starchitects, so they have no idea what else is going on. If you picked up the NY Times you would think that Piano, Gehry Calatrava and Koolhaas are the only working architects in the world. These journalists are just as sychophantic as People Magazine or Inquirer reporters. Rem Koolhaas might as well be there Brad Pitt, if fact it's even better print when they hang out with celebs or design a project for them.

*I'm not bitching, I'm just saying. I guess I better go work on my proposal for Sarah Jessica Parker's Nursery Room if I'm ever gonna make in this industry.. Maybe Parenting Magazine will give me a 3 page spread..

Michael M.

It's interesting to compare your notes, Brian, and the article your commenting on with this article about biomimetic architecture. I come away with the impression that the overriding imperative of both forms (starchitecture and biomimetic architecture) is to make a contribution. In the first case, the impression is about culture, status, and art; in the second, it is about energy.

In both cases, appropriateness and scale are important, but for different reasons. I guess what I wonder is whether architectural criticism will begin to reflect on those issues. Will a critic who judges a building an aesthetic failure still pronounce a building successful if it manages to contribute energy to the grid? Or will aesthetic considerations always rule the day? My impression of the current state of affairs is that critics would, if forced to choose, overwhelmingly support the options they consider most aesthetically pleasing, even if those options are an environmental nightmare. It's hard to imagine starchitecture ever disappearing as long as that remains true.


The New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2009 got it right when it published the article on the “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age” by Edgar Martins. To find the ruins of this concept in Portland we need look no further then SW 9th and Yamhill. The article in Newsweek, the “Bilbao Effect” is really a postmortem for star architects and their clients as we move into the ‘Post-Second Gilded Age of Architecture”. While not as sexy a term as Post-Modern it does offer some insights into the “new” direction for architecture as the Bilbao Effect notes… “It’s like a forced diet,” says Rob Rogers, a partner at Rogers Marvel in New York. “There’s a certain healthiness when the profession has to cut back, regrow, and reimagine what it is we’re all supposed to do—which is creative problem solving.” As part of that problem solving it is now recognized that extant buildings have a place in the future of the built environment. All old buildings are not historic but they do offer a point of departure and for historic buildings one of the greatest challenges is not to replace historic windows or make them work but to get the architect to understand the value of the built by taking a diminutive approach to the new work in context of the old as Piano has done with the iconic Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth by Louis Kahn or as Saul Zaik had done with his 1970’s addition to Timberline Lodge.
I do not agree that this current phase of the star system will return in 10-15 years, it’s more like several generations. While we all know the maxim that you need to know history to avoid repeating its mistakes. What is not stated in that maxim is that while history does repeat itself, it shows up in a new form that on its surface is not recognized so we need to be aware of the many images this new form can take while the substance of the message has remained unchanged.
Like all design disciplines we are subject to the context of our environment and for architects this goes back to the basic approach to education from a pedagogic POV. In a conversation with Robert Melnick, FASLA, and former Dean of the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts in Eugene, I asked him what his vision was for the school and he said that it was the ability to create excellent problem solvers. Part of his solution to this challenge was to take down the walls (silos) that separate the seven departments under his oversight. These walls began to get built in the late fifties and continue today to some extent.
The interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to architecture is nothing new and may be best currently reflected in the Design/Build, CM/GC-GMP or Partnering approach. “With the blurring of the boundaries among disciplines, you’re recognizing that you don’t solve the problem with an object building,” says [Ricky}Burdett. “Everything belongs to a context in the city.” At the time that Ellis Lawrence took on the reigns of the architecture program at the UO all School of Architecture and Allied Arts program were interdisciplinary which lead to a true cooperative approach to design. You need to understand context as Burdett notes and this includes the context of society, place and narrative in an approach similar to the investigative methods of a cultural anthropologist; i.e. architecture as an element of the humanities and not as a “building object”. As the complexities of creating the built environment expanded exponentially since the 1950’s the need for specialization increased and the concept of collaboration diminished until now when we see its resurgence, mercifully!

Jeff Jansen

I agree that the age of starchitecture is dead, but for reasons different than any commentators have suggested so far. The disappearance of fossil fuels, as we move through "peak oil" in the next few years, and the increasingly expensive depletion of our remaining reserves, will create disruptions in our political, economic, social, and environmental systems that will be cataclysmic. The reading I've done so far indicates that it is already too late for us to come up with a technological solution that will allow us to avoid such cataclysms. Our only "solution," at this point, is to figure out how to get by using about 5-10% (depending on whose numbers you use) of the energy we now use. That's not a big deal; that's a really HUGE deal. For Americans, and the rest of the "developed" world, this will amount to bare subsistence, compared to the relative luxury we have known for about 150 years. Virtually every aspect of what we consider "modern life"--cars, airplanes, suburbs, downtowns, high-rises, supermarkets, refrigeration, heating, lighting, medicine and medical care, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cheap food, sanitation--has been enabled by huge quantities of cheap energy. That cheap energy is going away, for about 30-50 years anyway. The specifics of what that world will look like are unknowable, of course, but I'm virtually certain there will be no room for extravagance of any kind, starchitecture included. I'm pretty sure we won't choose to use our scarce remaining resources producing custom, one-off, complex-curved, titanium panels for look-at-me buildings. And the whole premise for the high-rise building--that large numbers of people will be able to go to them in the morning (offices), and/or return to them in the evening (condos)--will disappear. Even most "sustarchitecture" (cutting-edge, sustainable, showcase architecture) I've seen involves a lot of high-tech, energy-intensive materials and building processes (e.g., photovoltaic panels transported from great distances) that will probably not be available. Whatever does manage to be designed and built, will be smaller, low-tech, and "local"--the very antithesis of starchitecture.


"Commissions for world-renowned architects are all but non-existent here, and when they do come, the commissions usually haven’t led to completed buildings.

There is a good reason for that. Its called the Portland Building. I am genuinely surprised that Michael Grave's monument to postmodernism didn't get at least a mention. At the time it was considered very ground breaking and cutting edge. Something to put Portland on the map so to speak.


I suppose I should comment on the issue instead of just rant against the state of architectural journalism, I just think the lack of public discourse on design and the media's focus on a few forceful personalities at the expense of broader issues is a bigger issue than the starchitect question.

To put it straight, I don't think the era of the starchitect is gone, just being forced to take a timeout. During the 1970's all the paper architects dreamed big and finally when the economy and technology caught up in the next few decades many of them got to build their visions. Jeff makes some good points, but I think the more likely outcome is that the future will have much greater economic disparity, and those individuals and institutions who are wealthy enough to build monuments will continue to do so; just at the expense of the rest of us.

It will be no different than the middle ages when serfs subsisted in the fields, while the kings and popes hoarded all the resources to build monuments to god or their own legacies. If the economy is just as tight or tighter, I doubt there will be problems finding an eager, hungry architect.

We must remember that most of our beloved icons Michealangelo, Palladio etc. were always subservient to their powerful patrons, and the services we provide to society are limited by the purse strings of those in power. Sadly, we don't shape the agenda and rarely have... We love to have symposiums and pretend our opinions matter, but the AIA convention is more like a comic book convention...

S. Linder

I don’t see the connection between star architects and the level of collaboration in the design process. A good architect should be like a ringmaster not a dictator. Today’s expanding communication technologies should be making it easier for an architect to maintain their vision while accommodating the requirements of supporting disciplines.

I agree with the comments of Douglas K. I thought the Seattle Library appeared interesting from a distance, but up-close, I could see how some of the windows catch stuff from birds and trees, which looked gross and made me think of the hours of maintenance required to sustain this architectural vision. Rock climbers need jobs too?

In addition to the sensory overload of the science center like interior of the Seattle Library, many architectural details were disappointing like the self-skinning foam chairs, which already had cuts in their skin and an unmarked ramping floor approaching a low glass wall, which was dangerous. This may seem like nit picking, but with any design, I like to be pleasantly surprised by useful details that demonstrate a deep understanding of the object’s use and empathy for the users, the Seattle Library is the opposite.

I have similar yet stronger negative feelings about Gehry’s work, the sometimes crudely executed details and the energy required to maintain the “pretty” exteriors, like the pink plastic candy coating on the EMP in Seattle.

Though I love modern architecture, the Beaux-Art style of the Harold Washington Library in Chicago seems more appropriate for a central civic building like a library, and particularly appropriate for Chicago.

As for whether the architect is a superstar, a shooting star or an unknown, I don’t really care other than I usually root for the underdog. It seems the earth’s natural environment is today’s ultimate underdog.

Fred Leeson

Just a couple thoughts. Brian, I think you took "A" wrong. I think he likes your writing so much, he thinks you should be doing it for a broader, mainstream audience.

As for starchitects: The definition I recall for architecture is "permanent enclosure of space for function and beauty." I hardly think the Seattle library qualifies under this definition...it is AWFUL as a functioning building. I tried to find a book there once and was baffled to find that the ESCALATOR didn't stop at that floor...I went sailing merrily on upwards. Just great! Can't get there from here! This is architecture? At that point, collaboration exceeds egotism as a driving value.

eric cantona

Libeskind's museum in Denver is a mess, as well. one of the worst museums I have been in. too much of Libeskind, not enough emphasis on the art. sad.

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