WHEN Philip Johnson died early this year, at the age of 98, a certain alluring but ultimately damaging definition of architecture may well have gone with him.
Both in his own designs and in his role as his profession's leading tastemaker, Johnson helped popularize the notion that what architects contribute to the culture has more to do with image and a kind of urbane glamour than with the way people actually use buildings or how cities develop over time. Johnson's work -- and the way he discussed that of his rivals and peers -- too often limited architecture to an easy joke or riff that works better in two dimensions than in three.
Many leading architects, not to mention the architectural press, found that way of thinking irresistible. Indeed, the design revolution of the last decade, which has made household names of Los Angeles architects Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne and European figures such as Rem Koolhaas and Santiago Calatrava, was sparked more than any other single cause by the speed with which powerful digital images of their work can be sent and published around the world.
In the last couple of years, though, we have begun to understand the severe limitations of that approach. Architects may enjoy greater celebrity than ever. But it's also true that they may never have been as ineffectual, in a political sense, as they are now.
During 2005, every month seemed to bring another example of that gap between image and power.
It could be seen at ground zero, where the Norwegian firm Snohetta unveiled a handsome design for a visual arts building on the edge of the 9/11 memorial only to watch helplessly as its tenants -- first the Drawing Center and then the International Freedom Center -- were bounced from the site over the summer for failing to offer enough guarantees that they would never display work that questioned American motives.
It certainly was on view when Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levee system in New Orleans and flooded one of America's most richly textured cities -- revealing, in the process, just how completely the link among architecture, infrastructure, planning and policymaking has been severed in this country.
And it was evident all over Los Angeles this year. The city that nurtured Mayne -- winner of this year's Pritzker Prize, the highest honor in architecture -- still hasn't named a planning director to permanently replace Con Howe, who announced his retirement a full year ago. It couldn't figure out a way to save -- or even frame a measured debate over -- the Ambassador Hotel, which is being almost completely demolished as you read this to make way for a pair of schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The LAUSD itself finally had to give up as fiction earlier claims that its massive building campaign would be driven by thoughtful and progressive design. The schools finished so far and the ones in the works suggest, instead, a process that sees architects as high-end decorators -- and a drag on the bottom line.
Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch, meanwhile, winner of the design competition for the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania, was forced last month to change his scheme, reshaping a crescent of trees that a Colorado congressman denounced as a symbol of Islam into a circular, bowl-shaped form.
Only in the redevelopment plans for Grand Avenue, where Gehry's firm was handed the task of designing a full square block across from Disney Hall, was there evidence of architectural sway. But whether Gehry will use the project to challenge tired development formulas or merely to help dress up -- and market -- a traditionally profit-minded scheme remains an open question.