Starchitects have long been the coveted designers of big new buildings—the Museum of Modern Art extension, the new Salt Lake City library, and the de Young Museum in San Francisco—but in recent months, the names of A-list designers such as Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, and Charles Gwathmey have figured prominently in advertisements for high-end residential properties. Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, Frank Gehry, and Herzog & De Meuron, who generally design cultural monuments, are all building luxury condominiums. From a developer’s point of view, employing a famous architect is not only about adding design value, it’s also about adding name recognition. In that sense, starchitects are transforming themselves from individual luminaries to companies bent on extending brand recognition throughout the world. The question, of course, is how much value a big-name architect actually adds to a real-estate project, and how architects became brands in the first place.
What makes an architect into a brand? Part of the recognition of a brand depends on what people who study such things call its “personality.” Foster & Partners, whose Web site lists projects ranging from a congress hall in Kazakhstan to the Elephant House of the Copenhagen Zoo, is an international brand with a definite personality: Technical Solutions to Difficult Problems. Foster’s chief rival is the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. The Piano brand, which conveys a sense of bespoke elegance, has been affixed to museums, airports, and office towers. It’s more like Stylish Solutions to Any Problem.
Interestingly, neither Foster nor Piano has a house style; their designs vary considerably from project to project. This goes against the traditional notion that the work of celebrated architects should be individual and identifiable. But style can be a trap, as Richard Meier, with his persistent white walls and expanses of glass, found at the Getty Center, which seems to me like too much of a good thing. Michael Graves’ Tuscan colors and simplified Classical forms likewise sometimes appear constraining. When I mentioned to a friend that Graves had recently built a building in Philadelphia, she said, “I didn’t know that it was a real Graves; I thought it was a knockoff.” Even Frank Gehry, who has perhaps the strongest architectural franchise in the world today—and recently designed a line of jewelry for Tiffany & Co.—sometimes seems hemmed in by his own success, as he builds yet another whimsical tour de force. The Tiffany necklace, by the way, looks like a very long key chain.
There are other sorts of architectural brands. Rem Koolhaas, who seems to have a love-hate relationship with his own celebrity, has shrewdly managed his OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture), turning it from a one-man studio into a brand. He has established a company ethos—one cannot really call it a style—in independent offices in Rotterdam, New York, and Beijing that have produced a variety of work, from a big-box convention center in Córdoba, Spain, to the crystalline Seattle Public Library and a dramatic nonskyscraper skyscraper in Beijing. The OMA ethos has a lot to do with cutting-edge problem-solving, which is perhaps why luxury condos are so far absent from the firm’s portfolio.
There is nothing wrong with architects being given the opportunity to branch out—the great Vienna Secession architect Josef Hoffmann created some very beautiful jewelry—and greater public awareness of design is a good thing, but branding may turn out to have adverse effects. Most architectural careers are marked by a deliberate evolution—a slow simmer rather than a fast boil. The drive to establish their own unique brands pushes young architects to distinguish themselves early—too early. Moreover, public recognition of an architect’s particular approach—Meier’s minimalism, Stern’s traditionalism, Santiago Calatrava’s bravura—can serve to stymie the natural artistic evolution of a designer’s style. Give the public what it likes and it simply wants more of the same. Remember New Coke? And that’s not good for architects who want to explore rather than merely produce.