HERO TODAY, GONE TOMORROW: THE LIMITS OF ARCHITECTURAL EXALTATION.
There are heroes among us and architecture is replete with them. Critics from Giedion to Venturi, from Goldberger to Muschamp have elevated one, or more often another, architect to the status of hero. Heroes are architects who become the stuff of contemporary exaltation (or scorn) and the centre of architectural attentions often only to become tomorrow's forgotten idols. Designs that once dominated the architectural journals and popular media are relegated to an architectural backwater we rarely if ever visit.
How many students of architecture or practising architects today even know Paul Cret, and his Folger Shakespeare Library: 'an architect largely forgotten and a building ... demoted since to a mere curiosity in Washington, D.C.'  Yet, in 1948 E. B. Morris  asked 500 American architects to list America's most outstanding buildings, the Folger Shakespeare Library was first.
I remember in the early 1970s speaking to my students about the dangers of exalting heroes and mentioned Le Corbusier, that onetime hero of heroes. They laughed saying they certainly did not exalt Le Corbusier. But exalt they did, for everything we discussed revolved around their vision of great architecture as personified at the time by Herman Hertzberger.
Easy to make heroes
Who exalts Herman Hertzberger today, or for that matter James Stirling, Robert Venturi or Michael Graves whose work was once so central to our architectural discourses but who now play second fiddle to Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron?
Our heroes change with such alacrity because creating heroes is intellectually easy. There appear to be no well-defined criteria or serious reviews of the whole of architectural production that guides the making of a new hero. We willy-nilly dethrone the heroes of the day and exalt new ones in the journals and popular media. With the number of articles on an architect more important than the architect's actual work, architectural heroics ironically is more a function of how many words have been written about the architect than how many people see, use or experience his/her built work positively. It is more an act of sociological production than critical reason.
Sociological considerations - of power, authority, professional networks and friendships - do more to explain which architects and buildings are exalted than architectural merit alone. What else explains why pre-eminent architects on a national television show a few years ago hailed an architect whose building they called 'the Building of the Decade' but which its users - in this case architecture students - found terribly wanting? This is a building that today is hardly noted or discussed by critics and architects.
What does it take?
Why is it that most architects (in the US at least) who become heroes worked in the office of another 'heroic' architect at the time when they were becoming a hero?  Did they learn about quality design or more about the mechanics of architectural heroics? Why is the second-rate part of a hero's corpus uncritically praised or else ignored to keep the hero's reputation unsullied. I think of a friend who upon seeing second-rate buildings over a number of years by architects whom she had been told were considered heroes asked, 'Just what does it take to be an architectural hero?'
The question is very apt. One should not expect that every building of even an architect hero is to be exalted. One should expect, though, a sober assessment of the work of those called heroes. We might find that for all their great work, they too are merely human and fallible with good work and bad, work that begs measured praise and criticism.
It is sobering when one realizes how little of a hero's work those who ennoble the architect actually have seen or experienced. I once asked a class of mine at a very prestigious architecture school to name their heroes. I showed slides of the famous and conventional views of buildings by those architects and asked the class to identify them. Most got 80-90 per cent. A few weeks later I showed little known views of the same buildings and the class was able to identify only about 15-20 per cent. I wonder how many critics and architects would do better? What we usually know are particular views of buildings that serve as shorthand for the quality that defines the hero and not the corpus of his/her work. In a similar vein, a successful architect I know, once told me that when he went to see a number of buildings by his heroes - he had of course seen them in photographs - what struck him was how few actually lived up to their billing.
If the making of architectural heroes is relatively easy, providing criteria that would explain and demystify why some architectural works are heroic and others not, is much less so. We need to be able to explain why one style is heroic and another not, and why within a stylistic or formal type, one individual is heroic and another is not. What underlies those choices to a great extent remains an endless mystery, debated but never revealed, by countless critics and observers of the architectural scene. Since it is the name of the architect or the building, not the criteria that we reference, the criteria remain obscure. Criteria provide us with the basis for judgment; without them, judgment remains a function of social power, not conceptual merit.
Referencing heroes allows us to appear to have clear standards without having to be more explicit as to why. With such elusive standards, it is easy for those who do the anointing of heroes to remain unchallenged. Referencing heroes also is thus employed as a way to chill discussion about architectural standards and why one or another set of qualities is important. How often have I seen people raise questions about the work of a hero only to be met by quiet derision or patronizing dismissal. These reactions are often by people who have not seen the full corpus of the architectural hero's work or even the building under discussion.
The focus on heroes and their work narrows our vision and preempts our thinking about or looking at other possibly noteworthy and interesting work;  this is unfortunately especially the case in our schools of architecture where often the only architects discussed are the heroes of the month. By engaging architecture through heroes we focus on an exegesis of particular cases rather than a hermeneutic that tackles the more crucial issues of what criteria should be applied to the evaluation of architecture and why. Adoration and veneration may be the stuff of religious vision. What the exaltation of heroes gives architecture is open to serious question - a question that itself is barred by the very exaltation that it interrogates.
We need to escape the self-restricting limits imposed by the exaltation of heroes. Instead we should be addressing and publicizing the diverse possibilities that architecture offers, developing and discussing criteria for why we value what we do provides greater room for debate as to whom architects should serve, how and why, and what is important and why. Heroes would have no place in these debates about the criteria of evaluation, standards of effectiveness, and aesthetic and moral good. Exaltation of heroes does not honour architecture; it debases the contribution architecture as a whole offers us all.
(1.) Architecture and its Interpretation, 1979, London, Lund Humphries: 177.
(2.) 'What Buildings Give You a Thrill' in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, vol 10,6 December 1948:272-277.
(3.) See R. K. Williamson, 1991, 'American Architects and the Mechanics of Fame', Austin, University of Texas Press.
(4.) See Daniel Willis 2001, 'In the Shadow of a Giant: On Consequences of Canonization' in the Harvard Design Magazine No 14 for an interesting discussion of this.
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|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2001|
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