Can architects build what we truly care about?

The terrace at the Fondation Louis Vuitton museum, Paris, by Frank Gehry
The terrace at the Fondation Louis Vuitton museum, Paris, by Frank Gehry

Prominent architects have become whipping boys and girls in anger about concentrated global wealth. Architects are drawn into the battles because they are seen as serving wealth that’s sometimes ill-gotten, while ignoring those who need to be housed, educated, and so on.

Unfortunately much of the celebrity-architect bashing not only trivializes what architects are capable of doing, but blames leaders in the field for sins shared by society—at least American society.

It’s not easy being a big-name architect these days. Boldness has often been deemed a sin in American architecture, perpetually bludgeoned by an institutional and development culture of cost-driven timidity. Citizens fear change because they fear it will be worse, and they are too often right. So architects of talent with a deep passion to explore esthetic possibilities go where the money is: developing countries that want to put themselves on the culture map and people of great wealth who desire monuments to their legacy and are willing to pay for them.

That’s pretty thin gruel, clientwise, and the results too often marry esthetic bravura to empty intention. Architecture as a tool to display ostentatious wealth (see “billionaire’s row” along Manhattan’s 57th Street) is hardly new. However cynical their patrons’ intentions, the buildings and institutions can become powerful shapers of place. That’s too often a rationalization architects use to try to make good buildings for bad clients, unfortunately. Zaha Hadid was likely to have been correct, legally speaking, when she observed that she could not affect work conditions at the site of her World Cup stadium. One architect taking a stand isn’t going to change things in places ruled by authoritarians and fanatics, but architects can collectively try to figure out what practices should be deemed beyond the pale, and when even the best designed building is a collusion with, or aggrandizement of evil. ….