Starchitecture: Is it a worthwhile concept?

Zaha Hadid, one of the most famous Starchitects

Starchitecture is split as ‘Star + Architecture’ and this is the architecture of the Starchitects or the ‘Star-Architects’. The term stands for iconic, out of the box designs that stand in the glory of their self, redefining the skyline of a city. Here, function definitely follows form. These designs are ambitious, which in turn make them popular, making them reach the list of ‘must visits’ for that particular city or country. The dreams that Starchitecture shows the city and the guests of the building, in turn, make it a legacy, which only multiplies with time. Starchitecture is famous, ambitious and proud. If buildings had emotions, it could probably make the simpler buildings green with envy.

Bilbao effect

So where did this concept get coined? This can be traced back to 1997, when this museum of modern and contemporary art was built in Bilbao, Basque country, Spain. During the inception, the developers had told Architect Frank Gehry, ‘Mr Gehry, we need the Sydney Opera House. Our town is dying.’ Puzzled, the Architect looked at them and said: ‘Where’s the nearest exit? I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee anything.’”

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

So he came up with the convulsive, majestic, climactic assembly of titanium and stone, of heft and shimmer, a cross-breed of palazzo and ship that also flips its tail like a jumping fish that now stands on the bank of the river Nervión. It was to be a driver of economic revival, which it definitely was. With around 1 million visitors per year, it boosted the economy of a town, much lesser known back then.

A concept of reviving and uplifting the economy, producing good media coverage and in turn creating global recognition by ONE iconic structure hence was born. It was termed as the ‘Bilbao Effect’ due to the contribution of this particular example of Starchitecture to the town.

Examples of starchitecture reviving the identity of a city

1. Reichstag, Lord Norman Foster

The original building was opened originally in 1894 and was famously burnt down in 1933 – an event which the Nazis used to their advantage to criticise communists.

The building fell into disuse during the Cold War as Germany, divided between east and west, had their respective parliaments in the east of the city and in Bonn.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in October 1990, plans to fully restore the Reichstag as a symbol of the “new Germany” was put in place, and this is how the new building, designed by Lord Norman Foster came in to existence. Today it is a massive tourist attraction and receives around 8000 visitors from all over the world daily!

2. The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart,, Germany by James Stirling

The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (State Gallery) is an art gallery and art museum in Stuttgart, Germany, opened in 1843. In 1984 the opening of the Neue Staatsgalerie (New State Gallery) designed by James Stirling (1977-1983) transformed the once provincial gallery into one of Europe’s leading museums. Today, Stuttgart has an identity of its own thanks to this structure.

Where does it fail?

The media demands stars with strong personalities and good stories, whether it is actors, authors, opera singers or buildings; the personality is always a pivotal part of the story.

Today, there is too much development in cities, many upmarket apartment blocks, many generic towers crushing characterful neighbourhoods. Still, at least with a Starchitect system, there is a chance of getting something good. It is a gamble, a lottery to up the economy in multiples or just become another façade, which ends up getting dragged by controversies and eventually dies a slow death. According to many architects, Starchitecture serves little social purpose and they inculcate a mindset in which, the architects’ artistic freedom and ambition trump needs of the users. The avant-garde behind Starchitecture may be driven by social cause but in no way does it completely justify the design, is what many think.

Only giants can reach the windows to open them, while it is impossible to remove the big leaves of a nearby tree that fall on the flat glass roofs; and the study desks – the basic components of the building – are difficult to use, says a client, whose Starchitect promised a naturally ventilated, user-controlled building.

Another found he had considerably less space than the brief because the architect insisted on designing the whole extension as a huge cantilever, so enormous trusses took up much floor space and much of the budget, when a line of small columns would have done just as well and no one but the architect would know the difference.

When he got to Bilbao a month before it opened, says Frank Gehry, “I went over the hill and saw it shining there. I thought: ‘What the hell have I done to these people?” The “it” is the Bilbao Guggenheim museum, which made both its architect Gehry and the Basque city world-famous.

Is it the ambition that overrides the need of the building’s occupants? Is architecture about problem-solving and not just creating fashionable buildings? Or is it again another context which can help revitalize a given town’s economy and offer a complete facelift?

Is it time the profession disclaimed the empty rhetoric and the superfluous and instead focussed on its unique problem-solving capabilities to issues of social significance. Is it time to produce straightforward, beautifully crafted decorous buildings that above all work well and which will get better, rather than worse, over time? They may be dubbed dull and they won’t satisfy the fashionistas nor the market, but they will do what buildings should do: satisfy and delight the people who use them.

Architecture is a social science, which brews on the Architect’s conscience and sensitivity. It also is a flamboyant art, which gives wings, massive wings to the dreamer and leaves a stamp on the planet for years and years to come, to be admired all across the globe. It can blend in or stand out, from the surroundings. It all depends on what is needed, and the context of the buildings. Bashing a building for being outright attention seeking is as bad as accepting it and worshipping it like a celebrity. The needs of any given place at any given time are evolving, and Architecture is the solution. Is the hype around Starchitecture worth it? It all depends on the need of the hour and the place.

About the author:

Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.

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