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Whatever Happened to the Architect Groupies? : In the '80s, a group of designers had their 15 minutes of fame, making the profession a form of pop culture. But 'starchitects' are no more. They've fallen back into 'decent obscurity.'

January 02, 1996|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the history of American architecture, probably only Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, and New York socialite architect Stanford White ever really penetrated the wide public consciousness. And White was famous less for his abilities as a designer than for having been shot to death in 1906 by the husband of his 16-year-old mistress.

Then, in the go-go 1980s, a funny thing happened to American architects: They became media stars. More precisely, a select group of designers--dubbed "starchitects"--became familiar to the sophisticated, trend-following public.

Arata Isozaki, designer of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1986, dressed in a dazzlingly fashionable striped shirt by Issey Miyake. In 1989, the sly / demure visage of I.M. Pei, architect of the Louvre Pyramid and the Creative Artists Agency building in Beverly Hills, peered out from the pages of Vanity Fair, which crowned him "the most famous architect in the world." As they became trademark names, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves--who a decade earlier was an obscure Princeton academic--and others were commissioned to design everything from watches and teapots to bed linens and birdhouses.

But the audience that follows entertainment trends is notoriously fickle, and architecture is far too slow and cumbersome a commodity to come up with new fashions every season. Now, deep into the '90s, it has become evident that American architects have lost their media luster.

In the Age of Celebrity, oddly enough, architects have faded into the background. Within the profession, some are worried that this will lead to dull design but it is mostly taken with studied humility. At the same time, the development shines an interesting light on aesthetic and other values in our time.

"We were famous for 15 minutes, as Andy Warhol promised," Michael Rotondi, dean of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), said ruefully. "Now we've returned to the decent obscurity we deserve."

Gehry ascribes the sudden burst of media interest to two factors. "One reason was the hunger of a profession absolutely starved for public attention. The other was the rise of the variety of styles thrown together under the heading of Postmodernism, which made architecture more fun."

Gehry cites Philip Johnson's landmark 1984 AT & T building in Manhattan as the watershed in architecture's newfound trendiness. Johnson, a pillar of the Modernist establishment and a brilliant self-promoter, shocked the purists by capping the AT & T tower with an eccentric cap shaped like the top of a Chippendale sideboard.

"Architecture became sexy in the mid-1980s because it was suddenly controversial," said Richard Meier, designer of the majestic, $700-million Getty Center nearing completion in Brentwood. "Its sexiness was part of a wider cultural phenomenon that included in its forward rush painting, sculpture and such things as performance art. For better or worse, architecture, like the other arts, became a form of entertainment, a branch of show biz."

Today, though, the editors of the glossies are much less interested in commissioning profiles of leading designers or in following architectural trends. Graves, Gehry and Meier might still be interviewed by such high-end talk shows as PBS' "Charlie Rose," but it's several years since Vanity Fair or People have profiled a prominent architect.

"Once architects were co-opted by the glossies, they became subject to the short attention span that governs the life of all trends," said Kendell Cronstrom, features editor of Elle Decor. "Today the fascination's moved on to new idols, to techies like Bill Gates." Cronstrom says the lack of interest Vanity Fair showed in Larry Gagosian's new gallery in Beverly Hills, designed by Meier, was a prime example of architecture's current low celebrity status. "A few years ago VF would've been all over the Gagosian opening."

Interestingly, American designers are still celebrated abroad. Gehry reports being mobbed by a crowd of fans on a recent visit to Milan, and in Japan, American avant-garde architects are still given star treatment. "Designs by certain architects hold a certain cachet," Graves said. "Something like baseball, which the Japanese also love."

At home, however, the designer's moment in the spotlight has passed. "For architects, the cult of personality raging in the '80s is now way down," declared public relations consultant Chris Northrup, who has promoted the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for several years. "It's significant that a number of magazines dealing with design have gone out of circulation in the last few years, including Angeles and Designer's West locally, and H.G. nationally."

Judy Skalsky, a Los Angeles media consultant, said the rise and fall of the starchitect syndrome is mostly due to the fluctuation in the number of dollars available for promotion.

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