Arbiters of Taste - Oculus

Who really decides who or what is hot or not in architecture?

Read the article in Issuu.

Who decides what's "in" and what's "out" in architecture: minimalism or traditionalism, glass or masonry, blobs or boxes? Although the issue appears to be a parlor game, it in fact lies behind who gets commissions and what is built, so architects should definitely take notice. Because there are the Creators and the Selectors and if one wants to build, then Piranesi and Ledoux are certainly not your models. In fashion, colors, fads, and styles are set by a fairly organized procedure; at the top of the food chain is editrix Anna Wintour of Vogue who almost single handedly determines who shall succeed or fail in the fickle world of fashion . Immediately below are the fashion forecasters who, through a mysterious methodology, predict the colors and cuts of the next season. Fashion is fast- architecture is slow - but the media is at least monthly - and has a voracious appetite for new images whether built or not.

The direct connection of architecture to power is as old as the Vitruvian story of Dinocrates, a Macedonian architect who appeared naked, except for a lion's skin, to gain Alexander the Great's attention. Over time, royalty from King Friedrich Wilhelm Ill to Prince Charles have influenced the architectural styles of their time. In the last century, tastemakers and murderous dictators Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were purveyors of Fascist architecture, completely quashing the avant-garde explorations of Russian Constructivism. Closer to home, American Brutalism, as well as the career of Wallace K. Harrison, was enormously dependent upon the largesse and friendship of Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the construction of the Albany Mall and other projects. In The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic dissects the manner in which power shapes architecture, a trenchant discussion that cuts so close the bone that architects have generally ignored its unpleasant conclusions regarding architects' actual position in the hierarchy of power.

Of course, any talk of power and Nazis in particular recall Philip Johnson, FAIA, whose disturbing dispatches from the 1939 invasion of Poland mixed architecture with politics, and whose career is a model of the architect himself as an arbiter of taste. Johnson, through his own personal wealth and position at the helm of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), put him in a position to direct taste and style for two generations of architects. His "International Style" exhibition determined a specific genre of modern architecture to the exclusion of others, simplified and understandable to the American public. With his intimate connection to those in power he was in a position to direct commissions to architects as well.

Power structure of tastemakers

One can diagram the power structure of the arbiters of taste: at the top are those who commission architects, making facts on the ground. Gehry might still be doing houses if not for Thomas Krens and the Guggenheim's museum in Bilbao. lan Schrager is a tastemaker par excellence. With impeccable credentials manning the velvet rope at Studio 54, he continues to select the "in" crowd, from lsozaki at the Palladium discotheque and Philippe Starck at the Delano in Miami, to John Pawson at the Gramercy Park Hotel and Herzog and de Meuron at 40 Bond Street. Of course, he does not work in a vacuum: a whole range of sources influence him in his selection, including magazine articles, award programs, books, and recommendations from the rich and famous.

A brief survey of current arbiters may be outlined in layers not unlike the circles of heaven (or hell) in Dante. The outer ring comprises the magazines and newspapers, and, despite what architects think, it's more chic to appear in Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair than Architect. Jim Reginato rules over architecture at W magazine, and to appear in Vogue is the ne plus ultra; no wonder Deborah Berke, Gehry, and Hadid are glad to appear in the same pages as David Beckham. Metropolis, under the aegis of Susan Szenasy and Martin Pedersen, hold court as the most edgy but accessible of the popular design magazines, with Frame and Mark somewhat more out there and a bit in your face. And The Architect's Newspaper, under Diana Darling and Bill Menking, has garnered a large popular following. Among the consumer magazines, there is only one reigning queen: Editor-in-Chief Paige Rense of Architectural Digest rules who is in and out with a firm hand. Eclectic in its selection, Digest readers build houses (note that Richard Meier's homes appear almost exclusively in its pages). Architectural Record, which, but for its mundane graphics that muddy its content, would be far more influential as a tastemaker. But Robert Ivy, FAIA, is definitely up there, as much for his curatorial position at the Venice Biennale as for being editor. A little known offshoot of the critics are the marketing consultants who wield great power but are rarely acknowledged: Louise Sunshine and James Lansill advise clients, especially developers, on everything from architect selection to the colors of interiors and exteriors.

In the next circle are the critics and historians

Until his untimely demise, Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times was influential and controversial for his ferocious proselytizing on behalf of a handful of architects who became familiar on a first-name basis to the initiated close reader: Frank, Zaha, Uz, Ric, Gregg, and Peter- Apostles or Beatles, for a "starchitect" it's all the same. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the current critic of the Times, appears to follow his mentor's preferences, but his writing is more reasonable and therefore less gripping.

Martin Filler is astute, writing from the intellectual platform of the New York Review of Books, and recently published a book of his essays. Fred Bernstein's wide-ranging topics appear everywhere from the New York Times to Metropolitan Home (and Oculus). Philip Nobel's irascible opinions are no holds barred, rare among critics who at some point must talk to the objects of their derision or praise. Paul Goldberger, Hon. AlA, at the New Yorker is essential to one's reputation and has deep roots in the architectural community. And then there is Architectural Record's Deputy Editor Suzanne Stephens, whose youth belies her experience, and knows where all the bodies are buried; she must be on your side!

Books constitute the next ring that can confer a higher level of architectural immortality. Here David Morton, senior architecture editor at Rizzoli, is on top: to be knighted with a monograph by Morton is a seal of approval. However, Benedikt Taschen's books are chic just this side of vulgarity, a two-foot-long book on Renzo Piano is the flip side of Taschen's extensive pornography title list. And then grand old Gianfranco Monacelli was the first to publish Koolhaas's S, M, L, XL, certainly inaugurating the heavyweight contest of architectural tomes. Kevin Uppert of Princeton Architectural Press also has published new talent before anyone else.

An arbiter who occupies a special position in this cosmology is Robert Stern, FAIA, who not only has become a luxury brand but also is taking no chances by writing the present history of architecture himself (along with a retinue of assistants). His five volumes of New York architecture from 1880-2000 amply include the work of Robert A.M. Stern Architects from 1960 onward. As dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Stern has revived Yale and made it a lively eclectic forum with everyone from Zaha Hadid to Demetri Porphyrios. In his architecture, Stern is like Ralph Lauren - a symbol of a mythic American lifestyle that cuts across academia to the popular imagination. The anti-Stern is Richard Meier, FAIA, whose insistent consistency and tireless promotion of "white (and glass) is right" have earned him a place in the pantheon of the tastemakers. Who can remember the developer of Meier's glass towers on the Hudson River? It doesn't matter, because his style set a trend that continues unabated for glass residential apartment buildings. Only Stern's masonry 15 Central Park West stands as an alternative.

Institutions such as MoMA hold the second to highest ring. Exhibitions by former curator Terence Riley, AlA, "Light Construction" (1995-96) and ''The Un-Private House" (1999) set trends distilling current ideas of the time. Barry Bergdoll will undoubtedly set an equivalent mark. Paola Antonelli's exhibitions on industrial design touch on architecture; and MoMA alumna Matilda McQuaid, now at The Cooper-Hewitt, is also a contender. Henry Urbach, curator of architecture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is important if he follows through with ideas that his Chelsea gallery began. The Architectural League of New York, run by Rosalie Genevro and Anne Rieselbach, fulfills this role through its Young Architects Program, bringing the next generation on its way.

The architectural Empyrean of Heaven are the awards programs. At the top of the list is the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel Prize of architecture that appears to be bestowed by God Himself. This prize seeks to confer the final imprimatur of genius on the architect, thus promoting the unsavory "starchitect" moniker as well. For some it is awarded at the twilight of a career, for others it is a jumpstart (consider what it has done for Hadid who had built very little when she won in 1994). The MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" is even more rarified, as it is given to a whole host of other disciplines. The first architects to win were Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, AlA, in 1999; the only other granted architect to date was Samuel Mockbee, FAIA, in 2000.

Other prizes include the international Praemium Imperiale, awarded by the Japan Art Society, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and the Stirling Prize for the best building in England. National AlA Awards, including the Gold Medal and Firm awards, are also very helpful, as are AlA New York Chapter awards - but in an increasingly global architectural economy, international recognition trumps more local laurels.

For those not in Vogue, abandon not all hope, for it is worthwhile to pursue these various arbiters of taste. Or maybe we should recall that "vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Ecclestiastes 1:2). Perhaps the best path is from Hamlet: "This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."


August 5, 2007

Alexander Gorlin