Brash, individualistic “starchitects” – cerebral urbanist Rem Koolhaas, Iraq-born diva Zaha Hadid, gracious, serene Renzo Piano and others hailed in the press as visionaries – became the new rock stars.
- Scott Timberg, "The architecture Meltdown." Salon.com, 2/4/12, retrieved 4/24/12.
I don't know who Scott Timberg is or what kind of deadline he was under but this kind of thing needs to stop. Let's review what we learned from this paragraph, shall we?
Rem Koolhaas: "cerebral urbanist" - Well, we could dispute that one way or the other, not sure it's the first way I would describe the man, but you figure, okay - this guy must be sort of like Professor X or something, lots of energy in his bald skull, and he goes around THINKING. Thinking DEEP THOUGHTS. Apparently about the CITY. Perhaps he sips red wine at art openings and expounds upon his theories to small, hushed crowds. Nevermind that he thinks people who design cities are like "chess players who lose to computers" - cerebral urbanist, I'll buy it, urbanism is probably one of the many concepts bouncing around his enormous, electrified super-brain. Sure. Next?
Renzo Piano: "gracious, serene" - Well, he's gone from nouns to adjectives, so that's just sort of annoying in terms of syntax, but whatever. Piano is "gracious and serene" - either he's a really smooth host at parties, or his buildings have certain qualities that can be described in those terms. Certainly many would agree, and the "serene" quality is certainly one thing Piano's reputation since Menil has been based on. He's also been celebrated for an elegance of detail and an attempt to build sustainability into his practice through rainscreens, breeze-catching, natural light, etc - - but he only had a couple of words to fit it all into there, so I give it a pass as coverage. Nailed the conventional wisdom. Not much for fitting the "rock star" category, but that's neither here nor there. My point is that Timberg is basically describing the architecture, which seems appropriate given what he's trying to do with this sentence.
Are you ready for the next one?
Zaha Hadid: "Iraq-born diva."
(Pause. Deep breath.)
You have got to be motherf---ing kidding me.
Let me get this straight. You have to introduce three "star" architects (all winners of the Pritzker Prize, the highest honor the profession recognizes). You pick three, apparently out of a hat. Okay, sure. Three's a good round number for a sentence with this kind of structure. But you want to give them some distinctive quality, you want to establish, I guess, that each of these three people offered a distinct brand of "rock star"-ness - so better throw in a couple words of detail to flesh them out. Seems fine.
But for crying out loud - - - the two white guys in the room get summarized in terms either of their role as public intellectuals, or of their respective architectural projects.
The Middle-Eastern-born woman can be best summed up.... in terms of her middle-eastern woman-ness. And "crazy woman-ness" at that, since he went for "diva." To be fair, since Google returns some 246,000 results for the search +"Zaha Hadid" +diva, maybe he was just under deadline and running with the conventional wisdom. Actually, since +"Zaha Hadid" +"prima donna" gets 255,000 results, he's a renegade bucking the trend. Way to go for the untold stories there, Salon!
Middle Eastern crazy woman! That's it! That's all you get on one of the most successful and innovative practitioners in the world. "Iraq-born diva." Race and sex, all you need to know! Pause for a second, archi-fans. I know you and I suspect you are the kind of people that jump at the chance to bring your friends and family up to speed on architecture, boiling things down to things they can understand, remember, and care about. You take joy in pointing out how Frank Lloyd Wright made his houses work like the Prairie, or (sticking with Franks) how Gehry's buildings may all seem the same, but actually each one has interesting responses to its context to make it special. You want the world to know more about this crazy mixed-up discipline we all love so much, or to at least have a picture in their mind under "Zaha Hadid" that's not a picture of Zaha Hadid.
Now, imagine that you are a Salon reader who does not follow architecture. This may be the first thing you have ever read about Zaha Hadid. What kind of messages do you take away from this little blurb about "starchitects?" Or from the other 246,000-255,000 stories you might read on the topic? Hadid's not the subject of Timberg's story, and he's not responsible for giving a competent reading of her work - but he could be expected to not peddle this nonsense.
When I last touched on the public stereotyping of Hadid, I struggled to reconcile my desire to defend the architect against (lazy, racist, sexist) zings, with the actual topic of the day's blog, a Hadid building suffering from numerous apparent difficulties in construction:
As word about this building's numerous constructional faults and garish, improvised fixes spreads, I suspect it will overtake Frank Gehry's Stata Center to become this decade's go-to building for architectural skeptics. No doubt this process will be aided by Hadid's already-cemented stereotype: she's a diva, an artiste, a gestural dilettante detached from the gritty realities of construction.So, obviously, I was lazy in my own way - I wasn't in the mood to go dig up choice quotes, and anyway was trying to get back to the comparison between Hadid's and Stirling's respective difficulties with construction.
This sketch is, of course, overwhelmingly sexist, and occasionally verges on racist: Hey, have you seen the "separated at birth"? Zaha Hadid is Ursula from the Little Mermaid! Not that they actually look at all alike, but, crazy woman with funny-colored skin, amirite?? Apocryphal stories abound: Zaha won't have stairs in her buildings because she once tripped while vainly wearing high heels to the job site. And note the ubiquitous, often unconsciously belittling familiarity: rarely do we hear it said that "Jim's" buildings failed at Oxford or that "Frank's" building is approaching a lawsuit, but always it is "Zaha." (It should be charitably allowed that perhaps the novelty of the name in an American context makes it simply work better as a short-hand: there are a lot of Peters, but few Zahas. And certainly Koolhaas is "Rem" as often as not.)
But really - we can imagine male architects being discussed in these terms, but never so consistently or with such self-satisfaction on the part of the speaker. And again, think of Stirling, whose leaky, overheating, tile-flinging buildings are (justly) celebrated for their formal boldness and slightly-ahead-of-their-time technical ambitions. The language here is often gendered, though more subtly, through the Randian-Brutalist filter of the architect as shaper of will into form. Stirling's buildings are bold, powerful, uncompromising, et cetera et cetera. Hadid's buildings are curvaceous and sensual - nevermind her angular, aggressive Deconstructivist work, or the updated, self-critiquing Brutalism of Cincinnati. And the distracted, flighty artiste seems not to have shown up for the immaculate, powdered-sugar concrete of Phaeno or its shuttered counterpart at BMW.
But from now on, whenever I read something like this, I will update this entry with the latest and greatest horrors. I invite you to share your own finds in the comments thread below - and spread the word.
Do not fall into the habit of retelling these bogus narratives, implicitly or explicitly. They are, first of all, useless as architectural criticism; more importantly, as sexist, racist claptrap, they are toxic to our discourse, and almost certainly contribute to the continuing and totally unacceptable numbers gaps in the profession. When you hear someone else saying this stuff, call them out on it, even if they are your friends, or just picked up the tab at dinner, or are very snappy dressers who went to school at some fancy place you want to get into.
This is genuinely, legitimately important and will probably matter more to the future of architecture than anything else you'll do in your entire career. Thanks for reading.