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Stairway to the Stars

Stairway to the Stars
By Philip Jodidio -

The first known use of the word “iconic” was in 1656, meaning “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an icon”. The journalistic practice of calling any recognized person or building iconic dates from the latter part of the 20th century. In retrospect, the idea of iconic architecture could readily be applied to ancient monuments such as Gothic cathedrals. For grand, symbolic images, few can be compared to St. Peter’s in Rome (completed in 1626) designed largely by the “stars” of the time Michelangelo and Bernini. If the Renaissance gave names to artists and architects who had previously worked in anonymity, it was the 20th century that began to devote its most symbolic or iconic architecture, like the Chrysler Building (New York, William Van Alen, 1930), to industrial and economic power. What we call iconic architecture has always existed, but its personalization around known architects, and its focus on economic factors is a modern phenomenon.

Palais de Tokyo, Lacaton & Vassal, Parigi, Francia, 2014 © Philippe Ruault, courtesy del fotografo

Forceful 20th century architects began to fashion self-images that implied a capacity not only to build, but to single-handedly change architecture and cities. Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier immediately come to mind. Oscar Niemeyer (with Lucio Costa) actually did build the new white city Brasilia. The fame of these figures slightly pre-dates the emergence of modern mass media, but they were certainly the stars of their time, daring to reinvent architecture and even life in the modern world. Wright with his signature fedora, cape and scarf, Corbu with his bow ties and round eyeglasses, made themselves immediately recognizable. This lesson was not lost on more recent figures such as Jean Nouvel, the man in black.

In the years following Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997), the term “starchitect” gained public currency. Architects completed their demiurgic metamorphosis and emerged, ostensibly capable of transforming the economy and appearance of a city. In fact, earlier transformative cultural institutions designed by architects of note dot the landscape of major cities across the world. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, 1959); Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House (1973) and the Centre Georges Pompidou by Piano & Rogers (Paris, 1977) all contributed to public awareness of individual architects while notably boosting local cultural life.

Beginning in 1979, the Pritzker Architecture Prize confirmed and amplified the reputation of architects like Frank Gehry (1989), Tadao Ando (1995), Renzo Piano (1998), Norman Foster (1999), Rem Koolhaas (2000), Zaha Hadid (2004), Richard Rogers (2007) or Jean Nouvel (2008). As these figures have aged or passed away (Hadid, Rogers), some have questioned the validity of the perception of architects as stars. As a song by Tina Turner put it, “We don’t need another hero”. Notably, after the 2008 economic downturn, pundits began to doubt the ability of individual architects to transform cities. In October 2010, Newsweek announced “The Death of Starchitecture”. According to the weekly magazine, “The phenomenon of using iconic architecture to promote a city, an institution, or a real-estate development was a product of the economic boom that began in the late 1990s and ended with the recession in 2008. As Western economies begin to recover, extravagant, eye-popping architecture is giving way to a subtler new esthetic. In the U.S. and Europe, architectural values are shifting from can-you-top-this designs toward more efficient, functional buildings”.1 It should be noted that “extravagant eye-popping architecture” has continued to emerge since 2008, most prominently in the Gulf Emirates and China, but even Manhattan has its share of pencil-thin 400-m + towers. Although seeking to be iconic, these buildings are certainly not always designed by Pritzker Prize winners.

In fact, most of the new oddly shaped towers around the world are the work of large “corporate” offices. Then too, firms like China’s MAD Architects (Ma Yansong), continue to produce spectacular buildings, confirming that the “death” of iconic architecture was prematurely announced. How big and showy such buildings can be depends on economic constraints as much as any esthetic evolution.

Fondazione Beyeler, RPBW Architects, Riehen, Basilea, Svizzera, 1997 © Michel Denancé

At the base of animosity toward famous architects perceptible in the press and in social media since 2008, there is a fundamental misconception or dichotomy. The “Bilbao effect” was a search for projects, which like Gehry’s sculptural titanium monument, could create economic uplift for cities in need of a boost. Such ventures often relied on already famous architects, but they sought above all to create iconic buildings. When imagined benefits did not materialize and cost-overruns spilled into the newspapers, there was naturally only one person to blame: the starchitect. The link between extravagance, a star architect and economic revival may have existed only once, in Bilbao, but even there, the Guggenheim was part of a city-wide renewal that also enlisted the likes of Norman Foster, Rafael Moneo and Santiago Calatrava.

Some starchitects have aired their views of their own status. In 2017, 20 years after the Guggenheim Bilbao opened, Frank Gehry, referring to the Bilbao effect told The Guardian, “I apologize for having anything to do with it. Maybe I should be hung by the yardarm. My intention was not that it should happen, it is bullshit. I blame your journalist brethren for that”. Instead, Gehry pleads, “I spent a lot of time making the building relate to the 19th century street module and then it was on the river, with the history of the river, the sea, the boats coming up the channel. It was a boat”.In his turn, Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas clearly eschewed his own cosmological status, “I think it is a name that is actually degrading to the vast majority of people it is applied to. And it really is a kind of political term that for certain clients is important because they use star architects. My hope is that through the current complexity that title will exit discretely and disappear”.3

Gehry shifts responsibility for the famous Bilbao effect to journalists; Koolhaas says stardom is an insult. Fame certainly serves the careers of architects and clients want to be noticed – stars and icons will always exist. But it can be argued that the reasons for celebrating many of today’s best-known architects are deeper and less iconic than media reports would have it.

A brief tour of living Pritzker Prize winners suffices to make this point. As for Gehry, who longed for the freedom of his artist friends in Los Angeles, his own Santa Monica House (1978) already summed up the liberty that he granted contemporary architecture to be more artistic. Tellingly, his first house was the antithesis of iconic, it was inventive and original, making use of materials such as chain link fence and asphalt.

Paper Log House, Shigeru Ban Architects, Kobe, Giappone, 1995 © Takanobu Sakuma, courtesy Shigeru Ban Architects

Tadao Ando laid out the full power of his ideas in just two early works, the 65-sq. m Azuma House (or Sumiyoshi Row House, Osaka, 1976) and the 113-sq. m Church of the Light (Osaka, 1989). The rigorous rectangular forms of these two buildings, reduced to basics and fitting into their urban environments, imposed concrete as a dignified building material and tied contemporary architecture to nature and tradition.

Renzo Piano came to stardom through his 1977 collaboration with Richard Rogers on the Centre Georges Pompidou. Big and brash, it shook the largely traditional area of Beaubourg. A much smaller work of Piano, the Beyeler Foundation Museum (Riehen, Switzerland, 1997) sits on a slope above the German border. With its porphyry and glass walls, its subtle, efficient natural overhead lighting and its views to landscapes and ponds, the Beyeler Museum is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, blending nature, light and unencumbered galleries for the art. In Riehen, rather than strident opposition, Piano choses harmony and rediscovers the timeless significance of architecture.

Rem Koolhaas (OMA) may be best known for iconic buildings such as the arched CCTV Headquarters in Beijing (2012) or the massive De Rotterdam complex (Rotterdam, 2013) but it can be argued that his own original contribution to contemporary architecture was convincingly laid out in books like Delirious New York (1978), where he stated that the development of Manhattan beginning in 1850 resulted in a “revolutionary lifestyle” that he dubbed the “Culture of Congestion”. In this book written before his architectural career started, Koolhaas placed himself as a unique observer of modern urban and architectural patterns, a role he has continued to play.

Known for iconic buildings such as London’s Gherkin (or 30 St Mary Axe, 2004), Norman Foster’s more original contribution has come with his subtle ability to create modernity even in the context of old environments, as is the case of his Carré d’Art (Nîmes, France, 1993) which lightly coexists with the 1st century Roman Maison Carrée. His urban design for Trafalgar Square (London, 2003) is perhaps the opposite of iconic, yet it is one reason he is a great architect. He is attentive to users and to the significance of a place.

Shigeru Ban has realized quite extravagant buildings such as the Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010) but he has also consistently sought to create innovative structures for emergency relief after natural disasters such as the so-called Great Hanshin earthquake (Kobe, 1995). The Pritzker Prize jury citation read in part, “Shigeru Ban, the 2014 laureate, reflects (the) spirit of the prize to the fullest. He is an outstanding architect who, for 20 years, has been responding with creativity and high-quality design to extreme situations caused by devastating natural disasters. His buildings provide shelter, community centers, and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction”.4

Quinta Monroy, Elemental, Iquique, Cile, 2004. Foto courtesy Elemental

The Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena (2016 Pritzker winner) and his team Elemental have placed social and environment factors at the center of their work. Their Quinta Monroy (Iquique, Chile, 2003 – THE PLAN 020) resettled 100 families on the same 5,000-sq. m site that they had occupied as illegal squatters. With a budget of just $7,500 per unit, the architects created a modern, expandable environment for people who had been living on the very edge of society. No Bilbao effect, just real, useful and inventive architecture.

More recent winners of the Pritzker include the French pair Lacaton & Vassal (2021). According to the jury, “They have proven that a commitment to a restorative architecture that is at once technological, innovative and ecologically responsive can be pursued without nostalgia”.5 One of their first major projects was the renovation (1999-2014) of the 1937 Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where they exposed the original structure, including vast basement areas that were opened to the public in their unadorned state. With Lacaton & Vassal, the reuse of an existing building and an economical approach to renovation clearly contradict the perceived methods of starchitects.

Toyo Ito, who won the 2013 award, built his own home, the Silver Hut (1984) in Tokyo. It had inward-facing windows opening to a courtyard, and an arching aluminum crisscross covering that allowed residents to close out the urban environment and to see the sky. Quite literally, Toyo Ito looked up to see the stars from within his modest 139-sq. m house.

Silver Hut, Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects © Fujitsuka Mitsumasa

Intentionally chosen from the list of Pritzker Prize winners, this rapid overview emphasizes the groundbreaking and almost entirely non-iconic achievements of architects who are amongst the stars of the profession. They are inventors and leaders, and even if some of them have created much more visible work, it will be asserted that they are stars because of their more fundamental contributions.
As some of these stars fade from view, others are already preparing to take their place. Architecture lives and breathes because of its stars. Iconic money-driven architecture still exists, even if much of it is devoid of originality. Famous architects may sometimes be blamed for churning out meaningless icons but most of the bulbous, leaning towers of the newly-monied world are not their work. The Bilbao effect was debunked by Gehry himself. Koolhaas is right to say that much of the hype around starchitects was generated by the press and over-eager clients. An overly simplified public view should ideally be replaced by the understanding that contemporary architecture has long been sensitive to place and environment. Alternatively, perhaps less attention is focused on a few figures, but it is in media perception of architects in a selected context (desperately searching for the next Bilbao) that a semiotic disconnect occurred, and this divide now seems to have been bridged. The stars may have returned to earth, but they are still with us.


1. Cathleen McGuigan, “The Death of Starchitecture”, Newsweek, June 10, 2010.
2. Rowan Moore, “The Bilbao Effect; How Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Started a Global Craze”, The Guardian, October 1, 2017.
3. Rem Koolhaas speaking to CNN’s Talk Asia. David Basulto, “Rem Koolhaas on CNN, the End of the Star Architect?”, ArchDaily, June 25, 2009, accessed February 17, 2022,
4. “Jury Citation”, Pritzker Architecture Prize, accessed February 18, 2022,
5. “Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal”, Pritzker Architecture Prize, accessed February 18, 2022,



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