The Era of “Starchitects” May Be Over, as Dream Teams Evolve the Field

by Taz Khatri
- Apr 12 2017 - 4 min read
starchitect Barberí Laboratory work space
Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta in their Barberí Laboratory work space in Olot, Girona, Spain. Courtesy Pep Sau/Pritzker Prize.

Historically, architecture has been perceived as an endeavor of the renowned master architect.

The household names in architecture—such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and more recently, Rem Koolhaas, the late Zaha Hadid, and Frank Gehry—are seen as exclusively responsible for their iconic creations. Lesser known are their firms’ employees, who no doubt played a critical role in realizing these visions.

Take, for example, the prestigious Pritzker Prize. Of the 40 Pritzker laureates since the prize’s inception in 1979, 37 have been individual architects. The dynamic duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron first broke that pattern in 2001, and laureates Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa were another winning team in 2010.

Announced on March 1, for the first time ever, a team of three won the 2017 Pritzker: Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta of RCR Arquitectes, based in Catalonia, Spain. Moreover, the jury citation lauds the collaborative nature integral to the quality of RCR’s work, saying, “the process they have developed is a true collaboration in which neither a part nor whole of a project can be attributed to one partner. Their creative approach is a constant intermingling of ideas and continuous dialogue.”

In reality, architecture has always been very much a team effort. “Any building needed many people in addition to the architect to be realized—the client, the master craftsman, the builders,” says Martha Thorne, executive director of Pritzker and dean at the IE School of Architecture and Design. “Nowadays, buildings require consultants, project managers, construction managers, and contractors, among others, to come to fruition.”

Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief of Architectural Record, agrees that teamwork is a huge part of all successful architecture. “Major works of architecture are like movies—there is a director who is likely to have a strong vision and many, many people who are listed in the credits, without whom it would be impossible to get the project done,” she says.

Architecture is changing, and so are the topics Architectural Record covers. “Architecture has changed; Record has changed,” McGuigan says. “We have definitely been focusing more on architecture within the urban context and on collaboration across disciplines.”

starchitect Les Cols Restaurant Marquee
Les Cols Restaurant Marquee in Olot, Girona, Spain. Designed by 2017 laureates Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta. Courtesy Hisao Suzuki/Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The way architecture is taught is becoming a more collaborative process as well. For architects, the cult of the exalted genius starts in school. “Many schools still follow the Beaux-Arts model, from the 19th century, where students sit at their tables waiting for a one-on-one crit with a master,” Thorne says. “But now, new, more collaborative methods are being used in the studio setting, where students work on projects in multidisciplinary groups and the feedback loop isn’t from one professor to a student, but from students to students, from students to professors, and from multiple professors to groups of students.”

This change in the way architecture is taught is more reflective of the real world. “We are teaching students to practice hearing different voices and understanding and incorporating those different voices in a useful way,” Thorne says.

When even the Pritzker, the most coveted and traditional prize in architecture, reflects this evolution, it’s worth taking notice—and exploring the underlying causes. Globalization and new technologies are two factors thrusting the practice of architecture more into the realm of collaboration (which tools such as Autodesk Collaboration for Revit support).

“The model of collaboration in architecture is greater now than in the past,” Thorne says. “This is partly because the flow of information is much greater. There are almost no barriers to collaboration, even with people in different parts of the world. And with new technology like BIM, information is less segmented between the architect, the engineer, and the contractor.”

Though McGuigan admits there is a greater emphasis in general on the collaborative nature of architecture, she is hesitant to declare it an either/or phenomenon. She believes that architecture can be a dance between collaborative teamwork and a single creative visionary.

“I think the ‘sole genius’ idea is now outmoded, even if there are very successful firms still operating under one person who has a strong vision,” she says. “Every project deserves to be taken on its own terms, and there are so many factors to consider when deciding, in critical terms, what it embodies. Even very strong individual architects cannot realize major complex projects without a team—yet they may be setting the parameters of the design and supervising the evolution of the design.”

McGuigan does see collaboration playing a bigger and bigger role in architecture as younger firms emerge. “I think collaboration has never been more important,” she says, “and the sole-genius idea is much less prevalent in the younger firms that are coming up. You have precedent for that in the legacy firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. There are no Skidmores, Owings, or Merrills at the newer firms, but they do a lot of excellent work with lead designers the public has never heard of.”

However, as with other creative disciplines, a mythology around the solitary master persists. “Modern architecture is the story of the starchitect, the architect as lone genius, the brilliant flair of the sketch on the napkin, the celebrity, the worldwide renown,” said architecture critic Edwin Heathcote in his Financial Times article, “Age of the Starchitect.” But as the education and practices of architecture change, the spotlight increasingly finds its way behind the scenes, illuminating a truly collaborative art.

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