Coming of the heels of Britain's fascinating architectural row between modernist Richard Rogers and traditionalist Prince Charles, a similar American public feud seems to be bubbling to the surface. While there may not be billions of dollars at stake and lingering issues about a hereditary monarchy, the underlying debate is taking the same shape. Essentially, world-famous iconic architects are being insistently asked to defend the proposition that their work has made cities better places to live in.
The Atlantic's James Fallows has been playing the role of the interpreter between two well-known designers, Fred Kent, director of the venerable Project for Public Spaces, and Frank Gehry, one of the most recognized names in modern architecture. It started at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. Kent had been a speaker in previous years, but he had come to this event to hear Gehry speak. Apparently, Kent criticized Gehry's buildings for not functioning well as attractive public spaces and insisted on an answer to his question. After a few tries, Gehry called him a "pompous man" and waved him away, later accusing Kent of attaching himself to his celebrity status as a publicity stunt. Kent fired back,
"Around the world citizens are defining their future by focusing on their city's civic assets, authentic qualities and compelling destinations...not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects. "What's interesting to me is what makes this different from the British debate. It is actually more about function than about style. It's notable that Kent is not quibbling with the aesthetic properties of Gehry's buildings, nor is he questioning their status as works of art. He is casting doubt on the way these buildings are used by people on a regular basis and how they interact with a surrounding urban environment. It's an empirical question, very American actually. Everyone knows Gehry's buildings, particularly the Guggenheim in Bilboa and the Walt Disney Theater in Los Angeles, have become tourist attractions and sites of pilgrimage for modern architecture buffs. Kent is asking how they are used by people who are there for reasons other than seeing the building itself, what role they play in Jane Jacob's "ballet" of urban life.
William Whyte, the founder of PPS, was known for making meticulous observations about how each little detail of public space either encouraged or discouraged its use. How were the steps oriented to allow for sitting and lingering? Where did the shade fall at different times of the day? He watched and videoed places all around the country, with a particular fondness for small spaces that generated a critical mass of human interaction. Architects have come around lately to recognize the importance Whyte placed on monitoring the actual uses of buildings and places. In my opinion, PPS is in the ideal place to ask the empirical questions. I hope the substance of this debate continues, although maybe without any more accusations over self-importance.
Here are two recent projects, both in New York City, involving each side:
|Pedestrian space on Times Square. Photo: Adrimcm|
|Gehry's InterActiveCorp Building in Chelsea. Photo: Scurzuzu|