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Kicking up the dust of change

Recent efforts to ban architects for simplistic reasons can lead to a sort of provincialism by way of protectionism.

September 04, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The news in the architecture profession has been dominated for much of the summer by a few guardians of homeland and propriety -- one of whom happens to be first in line to the British throne.

In London, a pitched debate continues over efforts by Prince Charles, long known as a champion of traditional architecture, to block firms he considers avant-garde from working in the vicinity of his favorite landmarks. Offended by a $5-billion plan by architect Richard Rogers for the Chelsea Barracks in southwestern London, Charles complained to the emir of Qatar, who was bankrolling the project, and succeeded in having it canceled. Last month, the Guardian newspaper reported that in 2005, Charles had lobbied to remove the French architect Jean Nouvel from a commission near St. Paul's Cathedral.

In this country, meanwhile, the General Services Administration announced it was dropping Norman Foster's huge London firm Foster and Partners from a project renovating 50 UN Plaza, a 1936 Beaux-Arts office building in San Francisco, after local architects pointed out rather testily that the job was being funded by federal stimulus dollars. The GSA swiftly replaced Foster with San Francisco's own Architectural Resources Group (which did very good work restoring the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino) and with Texas-based HKS.

It would be going too far to call these stories proof of some emerging architectural blacklist. The profession is hardly on the brink of loyalty oaths or are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been-a-starchitect litmus tests; Rogers, Nouvel and Foster, all lions of the international architectural scene, have plenty of other commissions and magazine shoots to keep them busy.

What the stories do suggest is that efforts to pursue blanket bans on certain architects because they're foreign, or because their work is seen as insufficiently sensitive to context or history, don't do anybody much good, not least the banners themselves. In both cases, simplistic judgments -- Modern architecture ruined the city! Keep foreign architects away from our stimulus money! -- can lead to a sort of provincialism by way of protectionism.

Perhaps more to the point, both stories make clear that a supposed understanding of cities from "on the ground" or "in the neighborhood" can sometimes act as a blind spot. In certain cases -- the prince and the New Urbanists notwithstanding -- a top-down view can actually provide the most useful perspective.

The federal stimulus package, in fact, has so far failed to transform the architecture of our cities in any but the most rudimentary way for precisely this reason. President Obama, in what was perhaps an understandable move tactically, allowed Congress to write the package's details and states to hand out the money, which meant it was heavy on patronage and pork and, particularly where architecture and cities are concerned, light on big-picture thinking.

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The bigger picture

The flap in San Francisco was predictable, at least in hindsight. If the central goal of stimulus money was to generate domestic jobs, of course handing a small chunk of it to a foreign firm was bound to be controversial. But objecting to Sir Norman pocketing Uncle Sam's dollars misses a couple of larger issues: First, that the GSA job, and the stimulus money attached to it, wasn't going to go just to Foster and his partners; it was going to go to Foster along with a long list of engineers, consultants, contractors and subcontractors -- nearly all of whom would have been as American as Glenn Beck.

Second, a knee-jerk dismissal of foreign architects playing any part in stimulus projects clouds the more meaningful questions we ought to be asking about that federal windfall and its relationship to American urbanism: Namely, will stimulus projects improve life in our cities even as they create jobs? Foster's firm has proved uniquely skilled at bringing historic buildings and urban spaces crisply back to life -- and helping revive streets and neighborhoods in the process. It added superbly proportioned glass canopies, for instance, to both the Great Court at the British Museum and to the Smithsonian's Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Washington.

Put it this way: Which is more offensive, that Foster had -- for a time -- a stimulus-package commission, or that lonely stretches of road are being repaved or widened across rural America for the sake of political and economic expediency?

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