Starchitect: The Destroyer of Worlds

In an interview later recalling the first successful nuclear test carried out at Los Alamos in 1945, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted a line from the epic Hindu poem, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  An apt description of what he achieved, the line may sound like the sort of bombastic speech one has come to expect from fantasy films and comic books.  In reality, the quotation is even more contextually appropriate for those who destroy in order to create, for it comes at a moment in which a prince realizes that his enemies on the other side of a battlefield are his family and friends.  The prince is reluctant to attack and try to kill them, but he is eventually persuaded by his charioteer to go ahead and slaughter them anyway, as it is his destiny.

In their sponsorship of much of contemporary architecture, this same sense of prideful, purpose-bent destruction seems to have infected the minds of many of those running our public and private institutions.  In the effort to appear hip and trendy, thereby attracting the fleeting attentions of donors and visitors, too many appear to have been possessed by the idea that in order to improve what they have, they must destroy or so alter it as to ruin what they possess.  Oftentimes they are helped in this endeavour by “starchitects”: those world-famous individuals who provide, albeit temporarily, a sense of cachet to a substantial building project.

One very well-known exemplar of this phenomenon is architect Frank Gehry, whose work and ideas I have deplored on this site many times.  A decade ago, Gehry was retained to add an extension to the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in downtown Washington, just across the street from the Old Executive Office Building.  The design, which would have tacked a huge bit of Gehry’s signature crumpled metal onto one of the most elegant Beaux-Arts buildings in the city, fortunately never came to fruition.  This was thanks to many factors, not least of which was the combination of public opposition and the inability of the Corcoran itself to raise the enormous sums required for building a Gehry project.

This week a group of students, faculty, and others filed a Complaint and Petition To Intervene in D.C. Superior Court, seeking to stop the trustees from breaking up the Corcoran.  Although only mentioning the proposed Gehry extension in passing, the pleadings focus on the inability to raise enough funds to renovate the existing museum, known as the Flagg Building, as evidence of the board’s neglect of its duties.  It may seem axiomatic or common sense to state that you don’t start building a new wing for your museum if you can’t pay for the upkeep of the old one, but the siren song of having a famous architect place his imprimatur on your institution appears to be too strong for many to resist.

Another “starchitect” well-known to the intelligentsia is Norman Foster, who turned the courtyard between the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. into a humid, chlorine-scented glass atrium reminiscent of a circa 1986 Marriott resort hotel.  The last time I strolled through the Kogod Courtyard, as the space is now known, I experienced rather an unpleasant sensation, as if I had wandered into an elderly lady’s bathroom.  I also wondered why on earth you would place such a massive, humidity-collecting space right next to two buildings containing art which is highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.  Lord Foster’s work is yet another example of how a structure may look cool, but makes things worse, not better, for the institution that commissioned it.

Yesterday the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s great art museum, announced that it had selected a local Russian architect to design its extension, after a very public falling-out with Lord Foster.  The Pushkin and local architects split over Lord Foster’s ideas for the expansion, which would have involved demolition of several pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site, and his refusal to come to Moscow to oversee the gigantic project. which will cost at least $640 million.  For some reason, in this context I can’t help but think of supermodel Linda Evangelista’s quote, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.”  To be honest, the design for the new addition is rather inappropriate as well, but I suppose at least it will cost less, since the architect is not at brand-name level as was his predecessor.

Meanwhile, a report in Roll Call this week indicates that investigators from the House Appropriations Committee are now looking into the efforts of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which selected a rather atrocious and expensive design by Frank Gehry to try to build on the National Mall.  Thanks to efforts by the National Civic Arts Society and others, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Gehry’s carbuncle will ever scar the Nation’s front yard.  Yet unfortunately, a few hundred miles away, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has just announced that Gehry’s proposed renovation and expansion of their magnificent temple to the arts, world-famous even to non-art lovers from the “Rocky” films, will involve alteration of its beloved steps in order to accommodate Gehry’s plans.  Although most of Gehry’s work will be subterranean, it will cost the city between $350-500 million *if* there are no overruns.  In a town still reeling from the recession, this seems rather a lot to take on at the moment.

This institutional obsession with engaging in destruction for the sake of self-promotion is a disturbing way of going about getting people’s attention, a bit like getting a face or a neck tattoo.  In light of the fact that so often the architects being selected for these projects are chosen because of their fame, rather than their merits as a talented and competent practitioner of architecture, engaging one of them for a project which is supposed to last for generations seems the height of folly. In destroying what such institutions are supposed to be preserving and honoring, the only purpose they serve is the further inflation of their own egos.

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Starchitect: The Destroyer of Worlds

  1. Thanks for this great post about how far too many of our cultural institutions have signed up to allow starchitects such as Frank Gehry to destroy their historic character in an over-priced and self-destructive attempt to be “hip” and “cool.”

    As a Philadelphian, I would just add two things about Mr. Gehry’s plans for our Art Museum. Yes, most of his proposed changes are underground and, therefore, would thankfully not be visible from outside the building (and, to Mr. Gehry’s credit, he is proposing to reopen a gorgeous vaulted walkway in the Museum that has been closed to the public for far too long). Bur Mr. Gehry is also planning to deface the outside of the majestic building in two misguided ways.

    First, Mr. Gehry wants to cut a hole in the middle of the Art Museum steps in order to install a large picture window and new entrance. Those steps are an architectural and historic treasure that make the Art Museum Philadelphia’s own Acropolis, and are also a cherished community asset where local residents and visitors alike gather every day to walk, run, view the city skyline, and celebrate holidays like 4th of July and New Year’s Eve. The steps should be preserved, not cut up.

    Second, Mr. Gehry wants to remove the bricks from the unfinished pediments on the building and replace them with glass. This would make glorified skyboxes for wealthy donors who are having events in the top floor of the Museum, but would deface the architectural integrity of the building.

    I propose that the Art Museum should instead spend the money to turn the fountains along the steps back on, finish the seven unfinished pediments to match the one that was completed in the early 1930s, and use the rest of the savings to expand pay-what-you-can hours in order to make the artistic treasures in the Museum more accessible to members of the community. If you agree, please check out my Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/SavethePhillyMuseumofArt Thank you.

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  2. Wonderful post. The Cooper Union here in New York will be forced to charge its students tuition for the first time in its history. Why? Because when the school was having financial problems, it misguidedly elected to recoup its fortunes by investing in a new building by starchitect Thom Mayne. Not only was that ugly building hugely expensive, however, but it failed to provoke the anticipated level of donations. Who will pay? The students.

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