The Death of Starchitecture? Critics Move to the Small Scale

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The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

An A-list quartet of architecture critics discussed their craft on Monday night at the AIANY’s Center for Architecture in Manhattan, arguing for the vitality of buildings in modern life and the impact of criticism in a changing world.

Although tops in their field, the critics – Paul Goldberger of the New Yorker, Justin Davidson of New York magazine, Cathleen McGuigan of Architectural Record and James Russell of Bloomberg -- all feel the pressure of the new reality.

They face a distracted -- if not outright indifferent -- public, the acceleration of the news cycle, the scrutiny of their editors and the influence of The New York Times, “the elephant in the room,” whose criticism is a driving force in the field, for better or worse.

In writing for Bloomberg’s financial audience, Russell said he hoped to stimulate the “28-year-old in the trading floor, dreaming of the Ferrari and the penthouse.”

Goldberger countered that he sometimes felt he was writing for the “48-year-old who already has the Ferrari and the penthouse,” but added that while the New Yorker’s readers were educated and sophisticated, they weren’t necessarily rich.

But Goldberger’s toughest sell is likely David Remnick, the mercurial boss of the New Yorker. Remnick cares about the new, particularly if the Times hasn’t already covered it, said Goldberger, but like a developer in front of a community board, he must struggle to fight for each inch of literary real estate, aside from a two-year window after 9/11, when architecture was king.

The field’s place on the printed page is uncertain. It must compete with the other arts, and is intensely local, creating an experience that defies easy characterization.

McGuigan, who formerly worked at Newsweek, spoke of the difficulty separating the experience of being in a building and later reflecting it from a critical angle. The ubiquity of artist renderings has further distorted the experience, she said, making it a far cry from the days of Lewis Mumford, patriarch of the field.

Thankfully, the New York perspective is one immersed in urbanism -- there is no way to abstain from walking, or at least seeing, the cityscape, said Davidson.

And while typical readers of New York magazine may not know the difference between Art Deco and Postmodern, they notice absences and new arrivals.

Davidson said part of his job is to document those changes, recording the physical history of the city.

But in recent years, the celebrity, so-called “starchitect” that designs the flashiest, most expensive “object buildings,” has overwhelmed the dialogue.

The term truly ascended with Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim Bilbao, whose steel arrival in 1997 suddenly established that Spanish Basque city as a destination. The late Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for the New York Times after Goldberger, championed the project as a miracle.

In New York, the movement has coalesced around residential, with Richard Meier’s glistening twins on Perry Street at the West Village waterfront, Robert A.M. Stern’s retro trophies, 15 Central Park West and Superior Ink, and dozens of towers by Costas Kondylis.

The movement came full circle with Frank Gehry’s wavering 8 Spruce Street downtown, which opened last year. (Goldberger is incidentally working on a full-length biography of Gehry, which his publishers hope will be complete within two years.)

But while New York sees no end of the trophy -- Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 will soon be the tallest new example -- the rest of the world has seemingly moved on.

Julie Iovine, executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper and moderator of the panel, spoke of a “sea change,” the move away from starchitects to a focus on affordability, sustainability and context.

Michael Kimmelman, the Times’ current architecture critic, has heralded the split, “repoliticizing” his beat by writing about housing projects, urban planning and the street level. He has avoided, perhaps consciously, the singular building, instead seeking to encapsulate a neighborhood.

Unlike the prior decade, the neighborhood now has a voice. In the breathless blog cycle, renderings flow like alcohol at a fancy open house, and commenters are quick to weigh in.

Russell calls the process “undercooked.” Goldberger dismisses the lowered barriers as mostly “pointless drivel,” although he said he became fascinated with Twitter while traveling. And occasionally, he admitted, there were diamonds, or at least rhinestones, in the rough.

But the interest goes beyond the purely aesthetic. And it is the consideration of the political, social and economic factors, the forces behind the art, that truly distinguishes the great critics.

If you don’t engage social issues, it’s just about comparing shapes,” said Goldberger.

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