‘Starchitecture’ and the Bottom Line

It’s extraordinarily rare for a celebrated civic architect to be the subject of a front-page smackdown in The New York Times, so it’s worth appreciating the recent profile of Santiago Calatrava and his aggrieved clients on that basis alone. Certainly, other architects, especially the 99 percent who don’t answer to the term, “starchitect,” found it to be a very enjoyable read.

Don’t get us wrong — we all make mistakes. But the litany of mistakes cited in the Times was particularly breathtaking. The paper’s interest is primarily the PATH station at the World Trade Center site, which will reportedly cost $4 billion (twice the original budget) and is six years behind schedule. According to the paper, Calatrava’s designs called for “hugely difficult construction,” and his insistence on housing mechanical systems in surrounding buildings (the implication is that he didn’t want anything messing up his aesthetic statement) created a host of costly coordination problems. The bulk of the Times reportage was centered in Calatrava’s native Valencia, Spain, where the City of Arts and Sciences, originally budgeted at $405 million, went more than three times over budget (the city still owes $944 million). A website run by a Valencia politician named Calatravatelaclava (which loosely translates as, “Calatrava bleeds you dry) is devoted to tallying up the costs associated with the project, and the case against the architect is further bolstered by the sad tale of what is informally known as “The Bridge of Broken Legs” in Bilbao (replicated elsewhere), that due to the specification of glass tiles has led to hundreds of slip-fall injuries and civil suits.

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Sports architects in the United States have been criticized for their inability to create stadiums and arenas that are “iconic,” but they rarely leave a trail of dissatisfied clients and lawsuits in their wake. Why? Because sports and recreation facilities are primarily designed to be easily operated and maintained, (mostly) to stay within a limited budget, and — this is particularly important — to fulfill to the wishes of project stakeholders and end users. At the end of the day, architects work for their clients, and the idea is to create a building that is memorable, that fits into its surroundings, is aesthetically beautiful or eye-catching, but within the client’s budget and respectful of the client’s program. Designing an airport that has no arrivals hall (as Calatrava did in Bilbao) just won’t cut it, nor will insisting that the blame resides with clients who failed to read the plans correctly. Clients expect their architect to understand the basic necessities involved in operating a concert hall, airport or field house.

It is understood that clients who hire a starchitect pay a premium for the privilege — being able to brag about your Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava building comes at a high price. While perfectly valid, clients should enter into such an arrangement knowing that they’re often paying for aesthetics over everything else.

For all of the criticism often leveled at the sports and recreation specialty — “cookie-cutter” and “mall-like” being the typical tossed-off terms used by architecture critics — there’s a lot to admire in our field’s gymnasiums, natatoriums, field houses and spectator facilities. They work.

 

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