Fred A. Bernstein

< Back

America Joins Architecture's Rem-formation

Published in Icon, October 20, 2004

Suddenly America is building some of the world's most exciting architecture. What's happening in the land of the mall?

Once upon a time – in 2002 – a New York entrepreneur named Coco Brown unveiled a plan to build 36 modernist houses on Long Island. Brown had convinced Zaha Hadid, Shigeru Ban, Winy Maas (of Holland's MVRDV), and others of their ilk to venture into the land of sprawl and McMansions. Brown's development – called the Houses at Sagaponac – was greeted with acclaim; Vanity Fair featured a group photo of the architects, resembling a gathering of starlets. But the photo could have been a dispatch from the Missing Persons Bureau. Many of the architects, including Hadid, had not built anything in the US. Brown's development, if it succeeded, would be like an architectural safari park – a chance to see exotic species outside their natural habitat: the Continent and the UK.

For decades, America had been sitting out architecture's Rem-formation. None of Europe's innovators – Koolhaas among them – had completed a significant project in the US. Worse, America's homegrown superstar, Frank Gehry, was best known for a museum in a provincial Spanish city, and the enthralling Diller + Scofidio for a temporary structure on a lake in Switzerland. Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, and Rafael Viñoly – all of them living in New York – had to go abroad to show what they could do. Even the high-tech trio of Grimshaw, Foster, and Rogers, hardly radical in England, was too forward-looking for American corporate clients, who seemed to prefer environmentally sketchy and aesthetically complacent buildings. Sure, important projects were announced – including Gehry's Guggenheim in New York and Koolhaas' remake of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but the announcements didn't result in architecture.

What a difference two years makes. Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library, which opened in June, could be, as the New York Times' critic put it, "the most exciting new building in 30 years". Reviewers, many longtime Rem-skeptics, insisted that Koolhaas had not only created a dazzling form but reinvented the library for the 21st century. Just weeks after the Seattle fanfare, Chicago – once the nation's hotbed of architectural innovation, but lately moribund – unveiled Millennium Park, a 24-acre parking garage roof on which Gehry built not only a bandshell but an astonishing serpentine bridge.

To the relief of anyone wondering if the US had permanently renounced architectural innovation, the projects turned out to be Made in USA. Rem's triumph was the result of a close collaboration with an American client (the enlightened Seattle library director Deborah L Jacobs). In Chicago, it was the retired chairman of cupcake maker Sara Lee and the widow of the Hyatt Hotel chain's owner who had recruited Gehry. Only nine months before, another all-American clan, the Disneys, had given Gehry his hometown triumph, the Disney Concert Hall. Koolhaas too is on a roll: last fall, his student centre at the Illinois Institute of Technology single-handedly revived the Mies-designed (yet recently dowdy) campus. The building is crudely constructed, and has an uncomfortable relationship to an adjoining Mies building, but it is so formally inventive as to take one's breath away – architecture as idea-packed as Rem's writing. (Among his achievements: using the diagonal paths students cut across a lawn as the basis of his floorplan.)

American architecture critics, accustomed to buying transatlantic tickets, are now flying domestic. Tadao Ando has also had two US successes – his Pulitzer Foundation in St Louis and his art museum in Fort Worth. Even more surprising, when Hadid finally proved that she could build on a complex urban site (her earlier structures were really just pavilions), she did it in the American heartland, where Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center might as well be called the Contemporary Architecture Center. In Manhattan, Yoshio Taniguchi's $500 million (£274m) Museum of Modern Art building is only weeks away from opening. And downtown, a lesser known Japanese architect, the chic Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, is building her own intriguing exhibition space. Could even New York, the American city most resistant to architectural innovation, be waking up? Three Gehry buildings are planned for the city; one, an office for media mogul Barry Diller, is already under construction, as is Norman Foster's tower for the Hearst Corporation in midtown.

The next year will also bring a copper-skinned museum by Herzog & de Meuron to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In Boston, what is now Diller, Scofidio + Renfro has broken ground for an ethereal art museum, and the firm is moving ahead with plans to reinvent New York's never-loved Lincoln Center. Buildings by the Old World's Rafael Moneo, Renzo Piano, David Chipperfield, and the New World's James Polshek, Rafael Viñoly, Richard Meier, and Steven Holl – all modernists who are often good and sometimes great – are springing up like Wal-Marts. (Polshek's Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas, Viñoly's business school at the University of Chicago, and Chipperfield's art museum in Iowa look especially strong.) And Santiago Calatrava is suddenly working, it seems, in every major US city, more than a decade after triumphing in Europe. (In fact, Calatrava now lives in New York.) As for Daniel Libeskind, well, two years ago, an American who wanted to see a Libeskind building had to fly to Berlin, which only added to the architect's mystique. Now, he has the highest-profile project in the US. Alas, the mystique is gone. (Calatrava, Foster, and Fumihiko Maki are also designing buildings at Ground Zero.)

Not since the 1960s, when Eero Saarinen's "Black Rock" headquarters for CBS and birdlike terminal for TWA, Paul Rudolph's art and architecture building at Yale, and Louis Kahn's Salk Institute burst onto the scene has the US seen such an explosion of architectural innovation. That period of creativity petered out with a 70s recession, and an 80s regression (to postmodernism). Sure, there were American standouts, including Will Bruder, whose Phoenix Public Library is a high-tech apparition, and Eric Owen Moss, forced to develop his own buildings in LA – but they were sparks that failed to start a fire.

The problem wasn't a lack of homegrown talent. Frank Gehry has been revered for decades. And it wasn't a lack of interest in architectural discourse. Oddly, throughout the 90s, New York was a place where architects congregated. Bernard Tschumi, Columbia University's longtime architecture dean, compares Manhattan in the 90s to London in the 70s: "All the interesting architects lived there, but they had to go elsewhere to work."

When things started to turn around, there were plenty of false starts – not just the Gehry and Koolhaas fiascos, but cancellations of projects by Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, and others. The events of 9/11 seemed likely to derail more projects. And yet the buildings that are coming on line now were mostly conceived in the 1990s. In that decade, rich people became so rich that the arguments against contemporary architecture – it costs too much, it's too impractical – were finally given a rest. In Chicago, 90 donors gave more than $1m each to Millennium Park; in Los Angeles, the Disneys gave hundreds of millions to "their" concert hall. From Seattle to Boston, internet billionaires who once talked system architecture are now talking architecture.

True, Americans still have a highly conservative streak when it comes to buildings. Most new houses – even in the liberal states – are Colonial or Georgian mansion-ettes. An LA movie executive might prefer a contemporary – meaning Richard Meier or Gwathmey-Siegel – but nothing as radical as the work of, say, Richard Neutra, who reinvented the American house before the Second World War.

Now some of Neutra's best buildings are threatened with demolition, along with many other landmarks of mid-century modernism. And some of the most compelling new projects have caused a backlash. In Chicago last fall, Wood & Zapata completed a renovation of a neoclassical stadium called Soldier Field, superimposing angular steel grandstands onto a bland oval. Now the National Park Service is recommending that the government pull Soldier Field's landmark status on the grounds that it's no longer a historic building. That's like saying the British Museum ceased to be a landmark when Norman Foster enclosed its courtyard. Americans want the latest technology, but in buildings that fit like old shoes.

Is the current boom merely a blip? Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the giant firm with offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, is a microcosm of the American architecture establishment. The firm had a heyday in the 1960s – with the Lever House in Manhattan, the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and other buildings of astonishing precision. Then, the firm fell into a slump, with a slew of flabby postmodernist towers.

But then one young partner, Roger Duffy, decided to shake up the faltering firm. His method was unconventional: publishing a book, the SOM Journal, in which outside critics say exactly what they think of the firm's work (often using words like "dull" and "mediocre"). It took Duffy more than a year to get his partners to approve the project, but the book is now in its third year, and it has got the firm's partners competing for acclaim. Duffy's own buildings, including a high school lit by the artist James Turrell and the interior of New York's new Skyscraper Museum, look more like the work of, say, a small European firm than the American colossus.

So far, Duffy's designs represent only a small portion of SOM's output. And only a handful of Coco Brown's 36 Houses at Sagaponac are under construction. Then again, Peter Eisenman, the 72-year-old who was known as a "paper architect" for most of his career, suddenly has $800m (£439m) worth of projects in the ground, including the most American of all buildings – a football stadium in Arizona. Surely, with an Eisenman stadium in Arizona, America has gotten back in the game.