Thursday, September 15, 2005

"Starchitecture" Comes to Sin City

A contemporary phenomena occuring in many cities around the world is that of "starchictecture". This describes the commissioning of famous star architects by civic leaders to produce a landmark structure designed to raise the city's international profile. Having Renzo Piano desing your city's art museum, or Norman Foster or Zaha Hadid design your opera house are examples of starchitecture. It is the city boosters' belief that a city thrives on some level of international reputation, often something more important than improving roads or other less glamorous urban infrastructure. Bilbao, Spain is a well-known example, in which Frank Gehry designs this sculptural art museum, which causes the town to experience a spike in tourism and in turn initiates a revival of th city's international reputation. Most of the star architects are indeed among the world's most talented designers and to experience their spaces is indeed a special experience those using the facilities. But the emergence of architects designing buildings in places far from their native countries and cultural backgrounds poses new questions about role of architecture in cities. Does bringing starchitecture into the city with no existing architectural sophistication improve the cultural environment in which local architects work? Is design less about providing distinct solutions to a very local site than about having a sort of name brand attached to the city's public image?

The retail chain symolizes the importance of uniform networks and predictable efficiency in our modern economy. Starchitecture operates along similar lines. Clients hiring them have a good idea of what they'll get from the architect that it will embody sculptural and monumental qualities that their constituents will appreciate. The mere presence of the starchitect's work in that city will supposedly join the city to an elite club of cities that boast a high reputation for culture. Suburbanites understand very well how the arrival of certain kinds of chain stores bring a degree of importance and respect to their communities. High design by a star designer can only reinforce the level of civic pride.

One case of the starchitect phenomenon today is taking place in Las Vegas. Only this time, as many as ten starchitects are collaborating together, hoping to give this casino town in the middle of desert an image of sophistication and mature urbanity. The plan is to develop a multi-use urban block near the Strip, with housing, office, hotel, casino, and other amenities all in one complex. The architects' efforts have resulted in a design that references the modern office tower districts of large American cities, with a nod to the high-tech popular in London's newer developments like Canary Wharf. Although the quality of design will likely be exceptional, I fear that the character of the project will betray the distinct energy and spirit unique to Las Vegas. Denise Scott Brown, who with her husband Robert Venturi wrote the seminal book Learning from Las Vegas, laments the potential loss of Las Vegas' tackiness and sense of fantasy:

"The Las Vegas we studied in the 1960's is long, long gone...They have gone back to the industrial revolution - steel and glass."

Her studies led to the conclusion that Las Vegas had developped its own architectural vernacular based on purely twentieth century forms like the illuminated sign, the parking lots, and the exuberrant if tasteless application of ornament. This gave the city its identity and has allowed it be endeared by most of its visitors and the nation at large. The ten architects hired to design project city center intend to ignore this vernacular, confident that their talents can bring a more 'enlightened' contribution to the city. One of them, Rafael Vinoly, is quite conscious the coming change to the city and view the importation of a slick machine-like international style as a welcome improvement to the what preceded it:

"Everything else around is the un-architecture," he said. "It's a cartoon; it's a horror show. But it is something that is interesting to see. It's an education."

We will see what the results will be when the project is finished, but at this point I am far from excited at what the results will be. I am aware that starchitecture gets rather monotonous, in that these designers replicate their style to fit all locales rather then propose original solutions to specific problems. Hadid, Gehry, Steven Holl, and Calatrava are guilty of this, and the extensive output seems to diminish the importance of their earlier works and tends to disappoint their fans with high anticipation. The main criticism is that giving preference to starchitects diminishes the chance for local architects to exhibit their design talent and to help establish a local architectural tradition or style that will endow their city with a visual uniqueness. I really wonder whether Las Vegas will really be enhanced with a complex of buildings that look more like downtown Houston than Sin City itself. I'm not anticipating anything inspired from this project, and despite of its functional success, it will never capture the memories of visitors.

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