When architects today design new buildings, their clients often hope to achieve what is sometimes called the Bilbao effect, after the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Frank Gehry’s titanium building has proven immensely popular, turning an old Spanish industrial city into an international destination for cultural tourism. Since then, scores of starchitects have sought to create similar “signature buildings”—museums, public libraries, performing arts centers—that will not only attract the public, but be instant landmarks. The signatures—Gehry’s swirls, Richard Meier’s pure white forms, Daniel Libeskind’s zigzags—serve as a sort of dramatic shorthand for Important Architecture Here. But have recent signature buildings been as successful as the Guggenheim in attracting the public?
Last month, the American Institute of Architects released the results of a national poll that asked the public to name its favorite buildings in the United States. Probably no one but an architect would be interested in exactly who made the cut. Meier and Gehry did (for the Getty Center and Disney Concert Hall, respectively)—although their buildings rank below Michael Graves’ cartoonish Dolphin and Swan Hotels in Walt Disney World. Such firebrands as Thom Mayne, Peter Eisenman, and Steven Holl did not. But it is the list as a whole that casts an interesting light on what Americans think of the recent spate of signature buildings. The short answer: not much.
There are a number of bona fide signature buildings on the list—Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Renzo Piano’s (almost complete) New York Times Building, Moshe Safdie’s Salt Lake City Public Library, and Foster & Partners’ Hearst Building—but there are not many of them. Although buildings built after 1997 (when the Bilbao Guggenheim was built), represent 21 of the 150 favorites, which is a relatively large number for a single decade, only one (the Polshek Partnership’s Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York) is in the top 50, and most are toward the bottom of the list. Moreover, the most admired recent building is hardly avant-garde: Bellagio, a Las Vegas hotel and casino, is designed in an exuberant Italianate style and resembles a cluster of lakefront villas. I’m not sure what this means. Maybe it’s just that more people go to casinos than planetariums, or maybe we should be talking about the Bellagio effect—architecture as popular entertainment.
At No. 22, Bellagio is not at the top of the list. The buildings that Americans care for the most tend to be older. Some, like the White House (No. 2) and the Washington Monument (No. 12) are very old; others, like Grand Central Station (No. 13) and the Chrysler Building (No. 9), date from the early decades of the 20th century. It’s tempting to conclude that people just dislike Modernist architecture, but Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (No. 10) and Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis (No. 14) are resolutely Minimalist, and the Empire State Building, which is No. 1, is Art Deco Modernist.
I don’t think that most people who admire the Empire State Building know the name of its architect, William Lamb of Lamb, Shreve & Harmon. Nor would they recognize James Hoban, the architect of the White House, or George F. Bodley, the first architect of Washington National Cathedral, Nos. 2 and 3 on the list. Perhaps the architects are not well-known because, despite the size and prominence of their works, they are not signature buildings in the modern sense. They were not personal statements, and they were not meant to be shocking. These architects were striving for something different: long-term quality rather than short-term notoriety. And it is the steadfastness and enduring quality of these buildings that people like. Conversely, the impact of buildings that seem exciting and unusual today often doesn’t last. That is something that cities lusting after signature buildings should remember. In architecture, the race is usually to the slow and steady.