When I first heard about the fire, I thought, "Wow, even Koolhaas' buildings can burn!" The event felt like a bit of an equalizing moment and I had a very distinct "we all have to sit down to you know what, don't we" reaction. I asked myself, "is this the end of the Starchitect?"
Thought I do not know when the terms "Starchitect" and "Starchitecture" were first used, I seem to recall them coming into frequent use more than a decade ago when Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain. Back in 1997, completion of the new building literally put an unheard-of town in northern Spain on the map for tourists and art aficionados around the world. In 1998 when I entered Georgia Tech to study architecture, Bilbao was still fresh on everyone's mind, and the concept of the "Starchitect" was ingrained in us young, idealistic, star-crossed young designers.
For more than a decade now, architects like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas (to name a few) have been riding a wave of landmark, high-profile projects destined to transform cities in the way Bilbao was transformed by the Guggenheim. In Beijing, the new CCTV complex, for example, along with the trendy Olympic architecture we all ogled over last summer, was intended to usher China into the new millennium in the eyes of the world. Now with the burning of a landmark work of architecture by one of the world's most prestigious architects, are we supposed to think now that China is all talk? After all, we know from the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics that China can put on quite a show when they want to, all the while controlling their very carefully-crafted "official" image. What is the official story on this one? This is a difficult event to sweep under the rug unnoticed.
I suppose it is a bit of an inauspicious moment for architecture, which is already starting to feel the pains of the global economic slowdown we can not seem to hear enough about in the media. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, at a gathering with a few of my Yale classmates, I was saddened to learn that several of them had recently lost their jobs, even at prestigious, well-established architecture firms. True, even I tend to get a little giddy when I see the next "new" thing from the big-name architects, but I also continue to struggle with the ego of it all, while all the while Beijing was burning. What is it all for? Is this the end of the era of the Starchitect and the Bilbao effect? Has the playing field been leveled? (Alas, can I hope?)
And to further prove that even well-entrenched, 101 year old Modernist Starchitects must take a blow to their own ego from time-to-time, it was recently reported that Oscar Niemeyer's project for the "Plaza of Sovereignty" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Brasilia was halted before it ever started over what seem to be concerns about budget as well as preservation of the urban fabric of central Brasilia's Monumental Axis. Oh well. At least even Modernism is up for preservation these days!
It's okay, Oscar, don't be discouraged. Rem's got nothing on you! You were designing icons while he was still in diapers!
[In an curious side note to the this story, I found it interesting to find online that conspiracy theorists have been quick to point out how the fact that the structure of the Mandarin Hotel is still standing after its vigorous fire has proven that 7 World Trade Center, which collapsed during a fire hours after the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, was "imploded." Some people just have to make trouble don't they!]