Why "Starchitects" Are Ruining Skylines

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Witold Rybcznski, emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, critiques buildings designed by "starchitects" - that is, star architects, who often work in cities they know nothing about, leading to buildings that don't mesh well with the surroundings, and advocates for cities to nurture more local architectural talent.


Norman Foster: London's Gherkin Building ("locatecture") and NYC's Hearst Building ("starchitecture")

London's Gherkin BuildingNew York City's Hearst Building

Frank Gehry: LA's Walt Disney Concert Hall ("locatecture")

LA's Walt Disney Concert Hall

Frank Gehry: Seattle's EMP Museum ("starchitecture")

Seattle's EMP Museum

Moshe Safdi: Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem ("locatecture")

Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Moshe Safdi: Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Resort ("starchitecture")

Singapore's Marina Sands Casino


Witold Rybcznski

Comments [21]

Pete from Houston

We should always build something that blends into the surrounding style of buildings that were built before them always because those previous buildings also, blended in, to, the surrounding, highrise around, them, because the world should be monotonous and not spark interest ever... Wait... Our new buildings should always look like the building next to it because when that first building was built the designer (was it even "designed"?) was trying not to stand out. Wait... If your city is full of ugly buildings new buildings should try to also look the same...?

Aug. 01 2014 07:49 PM
SteveFtGreene from Brooklyn

There is little to no public input into planning process in New York which is run by developers. Discussion of one architectural style over another is academic in this city.

Jul. 31 2014 08:50 PM

7 WTC at certain times of day seems to disappear into the sky.
That's about as good as it gets with a tall glass building.
doesn't matter how much it twists or what shapes you use, it is pretty much visually useless or ugly to me.

Jul. 31 2014 04:11 PM
Adrew from Indianapolis

I think the comment about “starchitecture” being about branding for the architect in terms of authorship is somewhat true, because we all consider ourselves to be artists to some respect. And quite frankly I think if you are lucky enough to become a well know architect (similar to a well know artist), you have every right to create a body of work that is recognizable as yours. But just as is the case with visual art, there will be good and bad works that have to be taken for what they are. After all, the client who chooses the Starchitect is also partly responsible. Their decision is typically also driven by branding of their company or investment.

Jul. 31 2014 09:09 AM
Dan from Fort Lauderdale

Before this current time, buildings had programs, programs determined interior space and interior space determined form which was then decorated (or not depending on finances).
Today there is no program. We build containers with no use in mind. As such, there is nothing left for architects to do except to experiment with unusual shapes to create buildings for an unknown purpose and of an indeterminable value. Our world is changing to quickly to do anything else. This is especially true since a building is supposed to have a useful life of fifty years.

Jul. 30 2014 03:32 PM
Dain Q Gore

As regards the attitude, "This is the future, deal with it," that would be true if postmodernism hadn't done away with any semblance of a progression toward an aesthetic ideal (and, actually, the singular ego-driven vision is now the OLD idea). The whole point is that if it's really that good and progressive, art shouldn't have to be pushed on locals by outside selection committees.

Jul. 29 2014 09:47 AM
raina from Somers N Y

And what is happening to the High Line? It is becoming an alley between one after another newly built and under-construction tall buildings--undoubtedly drawn by the cachet of the High Line. I see a time when sunlight will not reach it; to maintain those wonderful plants and trees--"grow-lights?"

Jul. 09 2014 08:36 PM
david werber

i must disagree with the assessment of the Yad V'shem building. Most of the building shown in the photo is underground part of a multi building complex
lessening the building's impact in that more natural grass and trees were not disturbed. the triangular main corridor makes the visitor feel they are in a claustrophobic environment reminiscent of the cattle cars that brought them to the German death camps and their horrible living conditions.
yet the triangular corridor ends in a triumphant explosion of light as the side walls flair out allowing light and a view of the Israeli countryside

Jun. 16 2014 10:29 PM
ballzonya from earth

Its called the future. Deal with it. Things change. Deal with it. Out with the old.. In with the new... Deal with it.

You don't like it? Got to school and design your own building. If not. DEAL WITH IT!

Jun. 12 2014 01:31 PM
Evelyn Tully Costa from Crown Heights Brooklyn

The Buildings are Too Damned Ugly!!!

Jun. 12 2014 09:46 AM
Nick from UWS

Architecture is a dead art, and these buildings are garbage; overwhelmingly depressing steel and glass garbage pure and simple, that reflect nothing but the hideous egos of the so-called architects. These buildings have no connection to humanity, no reflection of nature, no street level charm, no scale to the surroundings, no consideration for the millions of people that have to look at them day after day...they are truly structures of sociopathy and megalomania. One only has to look at the vile Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle, completely overpowering the once beautiful circle, its lower floors plastered with huge corporate logos like a Nascar jacket, to understand the extent of the aesthetic vandalism that this city has suffered at the hands of artless anonymous venal corporate architects, staring dribbling at a CAD screen, turning this once charming and visually exciting city into a 3D Excel spreadsheet.

Jun. 12 2014 09:00 AM
B.Arch Student from Brooklyn

While I understand the the position and may even want to agree with it... I wholeheartedly disagree. Especially in the case of Foster, I don't believe that Hearst Tower an example of "starchitecture". In the Hearst building, Foster created and appropriately scaled tower using his steel 'diagrid' system ..which just so happened to compliment the Art Deco base.. nothing was overtly arbitrary or clever. Also, as previously mentioned in the comments, buildings don't necessarily even need to be aesthetically 'connected' to their city anymore.. and this is nothing new! Ahem... the International style? (Duhh) What did any architectural style ever have in relation to the city besides the time period of construction and the architectural taste of the day? ...besides maybe materials. I'm sorry... but the guy (Witold) is merely preaching to the steadily aging choir. I will also note that he is a professor of **urbanism** and at *UPenn* no less............... perhaps using the renderings of Foster's new Comcast tower in Philly would have been more astute as an example of Foster acting as a 'starchitect". Sigh... PS: using the term "starchitect" is like using the term "hipster".. nobody really knows what one is yet... and you shouldn't use terms you don't know the meaning of. Goodbye.

Jun. 12 2014 02:05 AM

All the towers in Hudson Yards are by NYC offices. DSR, SOM and KPF are NYC firms. The project actually couldn't be more New York - mired in umpteen various agencies and stakeholders.

Jun. 11 2014 08:15 PM
Juliet Wolf from New York

Architecture, in my view, transcends locality in the sense that Rybcznski is referring to. Modernism specifically was a global movement before Globalism was being discussed as the hot topic that it is today. Cultural movements such as Modernism transcend place. Rybcsnski seemed to forget the UN Headquarters building on the east side, completed in 1952 by Brazilian architect Niemeyer and French Le Corbusier when stating that the architecture of New York in the 1950s was comprised only from New York-based firms. The building is a timeless icon and landmark in the New York City skyline. The issue of how/why Starchitecture has emerged as the status-quo for project selection and city development is a larger pedagogical issue than that of hiring locally. A selection and value system that no longer acts with an independent and truly comprehensive-thinking mind is at fault here.

The mark of a great architect is one whose designs convey an awareness of their environment, inhabitants and culture of place. Architects and civilians seemingly have forgotten architecture's position on the axis of function and aesthetics, often confusing the architect as an artist and entertainer. These buildings serve a function and occupy a place and space, both physically and socially. It is an expression of the city and place just as much if not more than a reflection of the Architect. A successful architect's "style" will shine through this; one does not have to sacrifice beauty for the sake of functionality, nor does one have to sacrifice functionality and site sensitivity for aesthetics and the architect's ego. This sensitivity and balance among architects has been nearly lost today.

Gehry's is the poster-child for 'Starchitecture'. Gehry's buildings, á la the Disney concert hall, is not a Los Angeles building but a "Gehry" building, and as that one which eschews design quality and intelligent functionality for surface flare. He is not selected for his skill and sensitivity, but for his spectacle.

My father, an architect, recently wrote to me regarding Renzo Piano's recently completed project for Pathe in Paris. Speaking of Piano, he remarked: "It is sad to see a good architect who finds his place in the limelight usurped by the fickle attentions of an architecturally illiterate press then seek to match outrageousness with outrageousness in pursuit of attention rather than the quiet quest of cultural excellence." Unfortunately the same could be said for many (albeit not all) of today's popular architects, and, for that matter, cultural pursuits as a whole. Money and spectacle are the driving force of the 21st Century. Starchitecture upholds this calamity in physical manifest.

Jun. 11 2014 02:49 PM
BrianBruise from Vancouver, BC

You should the "crystal" carbuncle added to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto which reflects the hubris of the museum's director William Thorsell and the narcissist architect Daniel Libeskind

Jun. 11 2014 02:24 PM
Pete from UK

For a few years London's Gherkin tower could be seen almost in isolation from several points in the city, and it had an inventive quirkiness that charmed the city. It didn't try to impose itself - it seemed to have popped up (or dropped out of the sky) overnight like a strange seed pod. Now it's surrounded by gormless, preconceived 'characterful' architecture. London's skyline is now idiotic - like an upturned child's building block set left for someone else to tidy up. The views from the London Eye in daylight are now appalling. At night, at least, the ugliness is hidden in the darkness.

Jun. 11 2014 12:24 PM

I studied architecture and I've lived all over the world (England, China, Greece, Japan & France) and I agree with Witold Rybcznski 100%, BUT... the world is becoming one. The idea of foreign, especially in NYC, is disappearing. This is the reality. I love the idea of localism but this is disappearing for the most part.

Jun. 11 2014 11:38 AM
ds from ny

I don't understand this point of view. New York architecture is just terrible with boring corporate cookie-cutter designs. More work by famous architecture would only help the city. If you look at Tokyo for comparison, here, things are depressingly homogeneous and uninventive.

Jun. 11 2014 11:37 AM
mimette from NY

Tel Aviv had a fabulous Bauhaus tradition - preserved but not followed by extremely tall skyscrapers of simple -near dumb- geometric shapes.

Jun. 11 2014 11:34 AM
Harold from Brooklyn

This is what the late Alan Lomax called cultural gray-out.

Jun. 11 2014 11:32 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

I'll be curious to hear if my suspicions are correct - that ego, and money, are the two greatest driving forces in "starchitecture." It is incredibly disheartening to see the bulk of the buildings that are now rising in Manhattan, and it seems, is starting to bleed into Brooklyn. Skinny, ultra-tall glass towers are all anyone seems to want to build here, which is ironic, because if you walk by any of these residential buildings once they are populated with residents, 90% of them cover their windows with blinds or curtains. Architects seem to think that "views" are what everyone in NYC wants, yet with so many people on the streets, it seems that residents want privacy once they are faced with 24-7 exposure through these floor-to-ceiling windows. And the buildings - once populated - end up looking ridiculous with hundreds of different window treatments covering the once pure lines of the glass. They look garish - as opposed to unique - when contrasted with a lot of the other 19th century buildings around them.

I've seen a few buildings in the Lower East Side, around Bowery, that are maybe 15 stories, red brick, but with new, large casement windows, and some green terrace spaces. Sort of taking a traditional style of NYC building (brick, industrial buildings), and adding some new flair and green spaces. It's not going to create headlines to make a building like this, but it looks so much nicer when blended with the surrounding area, and the scale matches the density of the neighborhood. One would assume local architects care more about urban planning issues (over-crowding of local services, for example), as well as preserving the character of NYC.

Jun. 11 2014 11:28 AM

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