The age of the architectural icon—that extravagant, exuberant, “wow”-inducing building on a pedestal—is dead, or more precisely, in its death throes. And what will replace it? President Barack Obama, who once dreamed of being an architect, had something to say about that Tuesday in his inaugural address: the age of infrastructure.
Rarely do events so boldly bracket the death of one design era and the dawning of another as they have in recent days. On Jan. 14, the developer of a kilometer-high skyscraper in the Persian Gulf playground of Dubai announced he was shelving the project, the mixed-use Nakheel Tower, which would have been as tall as three John Hancock Centers stacked atop one another.
Then, six days later, Obama issued his blueprint for recovery: The nation “will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth,” he said. “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.”
With the Nakheel Tower, the Chicago Spire and other wannabe icons stopped dead in their tracks and with the new president shining a spotlight on anonymous but essential public works, it’s clear that the deepening recession has brought us to something more than just a pause. It’s looking more like a pivot point. Or at least it could be if Obama delivers on his promise to reshape the contours of our metropolitan areas as well as revive the economy.
“In a funny way, the recession has been good for making these mega-projects stop,” said Pauline Saliga, executive director of the Chicago-based Society of Architectural Historians. “It’s giving us a little breathing room, a little time to reassess where we’re going with all of this.”
The icon age was born in 1997 with the smash opening of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum (above) in Bilbao, Spain. The titanium-clad museum, with its dazzling collage of shapes, spawned a new “build it, and they will come” mentality: Hire a star architect, or “starchitect,” give him or her free aes thetic rein, and watch the tourists or the buyers arrive.
Museums did it. Colleges and universities did it. Condominium developers did it. Indeed, whole countries, such as China and Dubai, did it to change their images or put themselves on the map. A global band of “starchitects”—Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava among them—seemed to be designing all of the world’s signature buildings.
And, in truth, a lot of what they designed was breathtaking.
It’s hard to imagine Chicago without Millennium Park, which brought new life to a once-moribund corner of Grant Park with Gehry’s festive music pavilion and sculptures such as the Bean. Similarly, Milwaukee would seem incomplete without the Calatrava-designed addition to its art museum, where mechanically operated sunshades spread over the main gathering hall like a bird’s wings. Ditto Beijing and the Bird’s Nest.
And yet, icons divorced from infrastructure are nothing more than empty set pieces, objects divorced from the fabric of everyday life. (Click here to continue...)
I enjoy the idea of a 'starchitect'. I am repeatedly amazed by Cesar Pelli's work, as well as many of the other current big names. However, a new age that focuses on infrastructure seems extremely necessary, considering the impacts our way of life is having on this planet.