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Is this the end of architecture's Gilded Age? Add to ...

Startling, provocative architecture is a thing of the past - washed up, tuckered out and exhausted by the flamboyance and bombast it displayed during our most recent Gilded Age. The headlines in that age belonged to Frank Gehry and other "starchitects," but in the present period - the one that began with the international financial crisis of 2008 - the headlines belong to them no longer.

In advanced design circles, show-offishness is out and the plain-jane modernist box is in, and not a minute too soon: The usual buyers of architecture (library and museum boards, corporate directors and so on) are tired of grand stylistic gestures, and, anyway, they can't afford to build glittering icons by ego-driven architects any longer.

Which is a mercy. Now that the patrons are broke and the public is fed up, architects can get on with the urban housekeeping they do best: spiffing up city centres, creating sustainable housing, that kind of virtuous thing.

Such is the verdict of critic Cathleen McGuigan, writing in a recent issue of Newsweek magazine. "As Western economies begin to recover," Ms. McGuigan says, "extravagant, eye-popping architecture is giving way to a subtler new aesthetic. In the U.S. and Europe, architectural values are shifting from can-you-top-this design toward more efficient, functional building." She concludes: "Pointlessly pointy architecture is so over."

This wrong-headed article left me fuming. Here's why.

Ms. McGuigan makes much of what she takes to be the new-found liberation of architects from the demands of the marketplace. She invokes the name of famous architect Rem Koolhaas to underscore her point that "clients are focusing on urban planning 'not just for economic reasons [Mr. Koolhaas says]but because it's what they should really do. Planning is the ideal form of investment.' "

Not only are the born-again public clients good, but the old private ones are evil. "Unburdened by the demands of developers to come up with quirky glass towers full of overpriced apartments," she tells us, "architects are becoming involved in designing master plans for urban neighbourhoods." The Sleeping Beauty of architectural talent has been awakened from the developers' death-like enchantment, it appears, by the Handsome Prince of public-sector bureaucracy.

This version of recent history flies in the face of the facts. Architects did not suddenly wake up to the problems of urban process and sustainable planning on the morning Lehman Brothers collapsed. For many years before 2008, but with hastening intensity since the turn of the new century, advanced designers and technologists in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have been giving serious mind to the environmental and cultural impact of buildings.

The very boom-time period that saw the design of those "quirky glass towers full of overpriced apartments" - some of which are magnificent, by the way - also saw the fluorescence of the ecological, systems-oriented thinking that has now become something of a religion among architects and planners, as well as the architecturally savvy public. (The development community has indeed fallen behind.) The artistic radicalism heralded by Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the radicalism of the complex ideas connoted by the word "green," in other words, are two sides of the same coin, two outcomes of a conversation about values and city-building that had been ongoing for decades.

But the most egregious sticking point in Ms. McGuigan's article is her scorn for what she calls "can-you-top-this design."

I believe we should expect design that can't be topped from architects, and we should settle for nothing less. Especially the centres of intelligent culture in our cities - the universities, opera houses and concert halls, museums, art galleries, libraries - should be sheltered by architectural forms that express the immense importance of the activities within. Daniel Libeskind's contentious, fiercely intellectual addition to the Royal Ontario Museum and Mr. Gehry's more humane, vigorous overhaul of the Art Gallery of Ontario are among Toronto's best new contributions to the imaging-forth of cultural intensity.

While cities will always need careful tending and mindful reinvention of the kind Ms. McGuigan admires, they are also in eternal need of buildings that arise from the imaginations of the most artistically radical designers and that speak to the metropolitan and global scale of our ambitions. Of course, these are tough times for architects who want to work on great, iconic projects. But it's to be hoped that these architects will continue to dream and draw through this chilly era, in the confidence that the anti-big sentiments of our day will change, and that their large visions will be translated some day into the hard stuff of building.

 

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