Architecture: Star architects emerge, but even they find limits

The CCTV Tower in Beijing was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)

Architecture, arguably for the first time in its history, found itself at the very center of American cultural and political life in the decade that is wrapping up. That centrality helped make stars out of architecture’s top talents. With the aid of powerful software, adventuresome clients and, not least, a flood of new wealth and easy financing, it also produced a rush of inventive buildings, in styles stretching from fluid to wildly sculptural to neomodern.

But the notion that architects had suddenly acquired more power than ever before, as opposed to more visibility, opportunity or cachet, turned out to be hollow. Along with producing so many terrific individual pieces of architecture, what the decade did repeatedly in this country was to give the profession a cold look at the limits of its influence.

In the haze of shock, grief and recrimination that followed the destruction of Minoru Yamasaki’s twin towers, rebuilding at the site, which quickly became known as ground zero, became one mantra America convinced itself we could rally around. But the process ground slowly toward gridlock: Daniel Libeskind wound up winning a high-profile master-plan competition for the site, then saw his proposal slowly gutted while he turned to designing condo towers for Sacramento and Covington, Ky. The memorial to the World Trade Center’s 2,700 victims, by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, was also delayed and diluted; it is scheduled to open, at least in part, by 2011.


The real authors of ground zero’s dismal script were former New York Gov. George Pataki and developer Larry Silverstein. Both tried to use the rebuilding process -- speeding up or slowing it down, depending on the month -- to further their own ambition, often to a shameless degree.

In the middle years of the decade, as the economy roared back to life, architects saw their role as cultural stars expand. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, an acoustic as well as architectural triumph, finally opened on Grand Avenue in 2003, joined down the hill by Thom Mayne’s hulking Caltrans District 7 Headquarters the following year. Sustainable design edged into the mainstream; I knew that long journey was nearly complete the day an editor for the first time allowed to me to use the term green architecture without quotation marks.

In a few thrilling cases, some combustible mixture of architectural talent, engineering prowess, national ambition or free-flowing credit came together to produce truly significant buildings, most notably the CCTV Tower in Beijing by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, an icon of rising Chinese power that also, with its Mobius-like profile, managed to re- invent skyscraper form.

At the same time, private developers began to show an interest in architecture’s most innovative firms as cutting-edge architects started designing not just museums, concert halls and private homes but huge commercial projects. Among the most compelling of that group was Jean Nouvel’s design for the “Green Blade” condominium project in Century City, a knife-thin tower wrapped in lush hanging gardens that was abandoned after the economy collapsed in 2008.

Four years after 9/11 a second national tragedy would strike, throwing the gap between design prowess and planning smarts once again into high relief. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their aftermath were followed by some of the same rush of interest in an architectural rescue that had applied at ground zero. In teams big and small, architects poured into the Gulf and New Orleans.

What they found was that the structure of city and regional planning, which should have been the sturdy foundation on which they built their individual feats of creativity, had withered away in Louisiana and Mississippi, as in much of the rest of the nation, to almost nothing. A roster of talented architects produced inventive house designs for New Orleans. Nonprofits have suggested ways to bring certain neighborhoods back to life. But without a robust commitment to planning as a regionally minded and publicly funded exercise, those interventions have had little more than a piecemeal effect.


Sadly enough, many of the same disappointments were in store when it came to President Barack Obama’s massive stimulus package earlier this year. Obama’s roots in big-city life gave many reason to hope he would promote a new age of investment in urbanism. But Obama is nothing if not a pragmatist, and in the end he allowed Congress to write the legislation. That made it almost by definition heavy on retrograde road-widening improvements and light on inventive solutions for 21st century cities.

Some architects have responded to the decade’s repeated disappointments in the political sphere by retreating into self-contained, occasionally hermetic debates over form and digital design. Many have come to accept what all of us are at least occasionally tempted to concede: that the idea of architects as influential political actors is always based on illusion, that power is something that uses architecture rather than the other way around.

But others have moved dramatically in the other direction, looking for ways to pursue engagement with social and environmental ills -- and with Washington. That split has noticeably widened since the economy melted down, and the two camps that it is beginning to create within the profession are likely to spend the next decade battling to shape a new definition of what architecture is, means and can do.