"Architecture has lost its narrative. It's too fashionable, too cute," says anthropologist and architect Franco La Cecla, author of Against Architecture. His book, informed by the works of Robert Byron, Mike Davis and Rebecca Solnit, is a passionate charge against celebrity architects, or what La Cecla disparagingly refers to as "archistars," who he claims have used urban cityscapes around the world to make their mark on modern skylines, with little regard for function or the public good.
La Cecla drew an impassioned audience at a reading of his book in the Village Voice bookshop in Paris in May of this year. When he declared, "Today, architects play the role of the fool, of the clown. They capture attention and amuse us. When you open a magazine today, you can see a whole glossy layout on Koolhaus. It's always about how fabulous he is; there is never any criticism at all." He rolled his eyes. "It's too glamorous!" This prompted an elderly American to stand up and demand, "what's wrong with a bit of glamour in architecture?" After all, he reasoned, Bernini, Michelangelo and Borromini were "A list" architects of their time, sought after by Kings and Popes. So how are Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava any different?
La Cecla was still unrelenting in his attack of famous modern architects. While the star architects of the Renaissance created buildings and public spaces that are still used today, he believes that what he calls "casino capitalism" has allowed for the creation of myriad architectural projects doomed to fail, many with archistars at the helm.
One need only think of the imposing skylines of cities like Doha or Dubai in the Middle East, boasting vast, brightly lit skyscrapers designed by the biggest (and most expensive) names in architecture, to see that La Cecla has a point. These constructions may look appealing from afar, but they do have high vacancy rates - 40% in some cases, take up horrifying amounts of energy, and have been built in a way that discourages public engagement, or even walking outdoors. The result is that Qataris, Kuwaitis and Emiratis chalk up some of the highest per capita carbon footprints on the planet, and obesity rates in the Middle East are exploding, possibly due to the car-dependent design of their cities, and the lack of infrastructure dedicated to fitness based activities.
La Cecla is unsurprised by this: he believes the current economic climate has allowed capital to be concentrated in the hands of the very few, negating the urban needs of the masses. The result is that the extremely wealthy, such as the Sheikhs of the Gulf, build capricious projects they can stamp their names on, while the needs of the public for spaces of communal engagement are ignored.
One audience member protested that communal engagement is not borne out of architecture, but rather culture, but this point of view was quickly shot down by a French member of the audience. "Nonsense!" she stated. "Look at places like Jardin du Luxembourg, where there are chairs laid out for people to enjoy the sunshine and open spaces, compared to La Défence, which is a concrete jungle. They are both populated almost entirely by French people of the same cultural background, but they are different worlds. And why? Because of how the space is architected."
This may be true, but it is not only the star architects ruining public space. I was shocked by a recent visit to Toronto to see that cookie-cutter condos built by faceless developers are having the same effect. When I mentioned this to La Cecla, he shrugged "again, its casino capitalism," but another audience member disagreed. "No, Franco. It's not capitalism at fault. Nor is it the architects. The ones to blame here are ourselves. People need to demand good governance, and with good governance come strong regulations. You would never see these (architectural) monstrosities at the centre of Paris. It would never be allowed."
It seems that as with government, people get the architecture they deserve.
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