Whether prompted by a genuine rise in the public's design consciousness, or by their own promotional efforts, a few select architects in these days of arbitrary tastes and shifting styles have become celebrities. Their doodlings prompt auctions; their observations lecture fees; their attendance fawning; their services clients; their designs mimicry, and their completed projects the attention of critics.
Three such architect/celebrities are Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel, with Meier a singular force heading his own design firm and Gwathmey and Siegel melding their talents as partners. All have reaped riches and reams of awards, in particular Meier, who, within the last year, has garnered the Pritzker Prize--considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in architecture--and the coveted commission to design the proposed J. Paul Getty arts complex in Brentwood.
The projects executed by the architects that have brought them to the pinnacle of their profession have been compiled in separate monographs bearing their names. Both the efforts are thorough and well detailed, illustrated and designed; both are fine presentations of numerous exquisitely conceived structures that are sure to engage those who pursue and appreciate interior and exterior design.
The volumes also reflect in the presentation of many of the projects a similar respect of the architects for the pure, abstract qualities of the modern movement, particularly as espoused by Le Corbusier in the 1920s, and an abiding concern, if not preoccupation, with composition and style. It is a controversial posture that Meier and Gwathmey assumed 20 years ago when they and a few peers were glibly known as the "New York 5" and tended to overintellectualize roof lines and the curve of walls, among other objects.
In one description after another, the architects review the "problem" of their projects in physical terms, such as needing to design a large residence on a narrow lot, an office building of a certain size, an executive suite with a limited view, a museum in a changing neighborhood or a school in a rural setting.
There is no recognition that the "problem" actually may be that the needs of the users (such as a family of many children wanting more space) and the physical description (a large residence on a narrow lot) are the beginning of a design process leading to a solution. There also is hardly any discussion of budget constraints and no mention anywhere of what the structures cost to build.
To be sure, many of the works of Meier and Gwathmey and Siegel are impressive as compositions of pristine qualities. Certainly, Meier's visitor's center in New Harmony, Ind.; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; Gwathmey and Siegel's de Menil residence in East Hampton, N.Y., and the Evans office building in Montvale, N.J., to just mention a few, are first and foremost pieces of sculpture--art that may or may not work as architecture.
And there also are projects that display a fine talent for architecture, such as Meier's recycling of an industrial building in New York City into artists' housing, and Gwathmey and Siegel's sensitive design for a housing complex in Columbus, Ind.
It is not that art and architecture are separate endeavors. Indeed, they are not, as some of the projects in these volumes admirably display. But the emphasis is clearly in the look of the projects, not in how they work for the users--and for reasons not lost on architects hungry for celebrity status and its rewards.
Such are our values these days that, as architects with talent have moved away from the concept of architecture as a social art meeting society's needs toward a concept of personal art exercising individual aesthetics, they seem to have gained stature and success.
And whether the move was prompted by frustration, defeatism, elitism, greed, megalomania or simply the desire to display one's talents, it is on personal art that the spotlight of architecture seems to be focusing today. The results are attractive books, such as the Meier and Gwathmey and Siegel monographs, some stunning buildings that perhaps will persevere and function, and a sadly narrowing vision of architecture.