Saturday, September 1, 2012

87. You Don't Have to be Good Part 5: The Taxonomy of Architectural Fame

For a long time the diagram above represented how I understood the mechanics of famous architecture.

That all famous architecture was the result of good work that was well promoted. 

While this is more or less a nice truism, it is far from the norm when you look at the full scope of famous works.

The fact is, that like most neatly packaged truisms, it is an oversimplification of a vastly deeper and more complex reality.

A more accurate-to-reality diagram would begin to look something more like this

Because lets face it, not all architecture that is famous is also good: Some are and some are not.

There are a lot of famous architecture out there that are just plain deficient in a lot of respects, but because they are interesting to a few influential people and are well promoted, they receive a lot of attention in the press, and stand a better chance of getting singled out for awards and accolades.

So what do I mean when I say “good architecture” you ask?

As I mentioned in part I of this series, I had a teacher in college that once told me that in order to make really outstanding works, you have got to innovate; push the envelope and do something interesting or you have to go the way of Mies and raise the detailing and craftsmanship to a level of high quality.

However, I always thought that to be really good it should be a combination of the two. Like this:

However, what I have noticed after travelling and seeing more and more architecture both famous and non-famous is that there are a lot of works out there that are famous that is either interesting alone and are poorly crafted (like The New Museum or The Mountain Dwelling ) or conversely, there are others that are very well made alone but does little in the way of innovation (eg. the works of Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld).

So maybe my old professor was right after all, maybe it just needs to be one or the other...well kind of.

I say kind of because the other thing that I have noticed as well, is that I have never ever in all my life, come across any famous architecture that was not well promoted.

This is something the old guy never told us about. 


Do you think Mies, Corbu or Wright promoted their work?

Yes! Absolutely Yes! and fuck yeah!

The general exception (if you want to call it an exception) is where it was designed by an extraordinarily famous architect. In this case he or she does not really have to make that much of an effort to promote it because the press are usually all over it like a pack of hungry wolves. And if the press is writing about it, ta-da!... it is being promoted!

When you start taking individual works of architecture and begin to look at them through this paradigm, immediately it becomes much more interesting.

Take the mountain dwelling and the new museum for example.
In my view this is where they fit (space #2).

They both have interesting concepts and ideas, but they are constructed and detailed at a  commercial grade quality. So as you can see, I had to create an extra classification to properly define them. 

Both projects are also extremely well promoted, so it should come as no surprise that they are very famous. The lack of quality has no effect and does not tarnish the popularity or the reputation of the work.
And therein lies the essential flaw in this diagram - quality. Quality is no prerequisite for famous architecture.  It is optional and in most cases irrelevant.

As mentioned in part 3 of this series, unless the project specifically discusses quality in craftsmanship, detailing, or construction, this is a non-issue: It is the ideas of the work that takes precedence.

Mies, Pierre Chareau and say Louis Kahn’s work would generally fall in the overlap of quality detailing and interesting ideas.

Now before I could have finished that sentence I felt a massive scream in the universe. It was the voices of all the architects who believe Mies is boring. I hear you. I think his work is boring too in a lot of ways, but I also believe the idea of his work in itself and what he was aiming to accomplish is very interesting.

More importantly though, what I consider interesting really doesn’t matter in this diagram.
What matters is what the architectural community as a whole finds interesting and (as I will argue in a future series of notes) what matters supremely is what key influential members within this community believes is interesting. Form follows taste and so does celebrated works of architecture.

So if we take away this stuff about quality and say exactly what is meant by interesting then we get

You will also notice the addition of the “Celebrated Works” category. It confirms that it is the famous architecture which key influential members of the architectural community finds interesting that are the ones that wins awards and are celebrated. After all, who do you think sits on a jury and decide who will get the awards?

If you remember this line from note number 76 - (Predicting the Pritzker part 2- Take a lesson from Brad & Angelina), then then you will understand exactly where the Pritzker fits into this picture.

The Pritzker only celebrates the celebrated and gives more attention to the already famous. It does not advance architecture or humanity in anyway beyond creating mindless chatter in the hallways and online chat-rooms throughout the architecturally-interested world about whether the latest pick was worthy enough to be crowned America’s top star-architect.

The Pritzker picks it awardees almost exclusively from the architects who have already got a few buildings in this narrow sliver of celebrated works.

The other category that we have up there is Anointed Works. This is a rather strange area, it consists of works that key figures in the architecture community finds interesting and even though it is well promoted, for some reason or another it just does not have enough appeal to make it famous or celebrated.

This I will talk about next week in more detail with some real world examples.

Stay tuned.

Conrad Newel 
Liberating Minds Since August 2007


Katherina said...

Those are all good points. However it's not easy to nail a working definition for "good architecture": while good craftsmanship & detailing is generally universally understood, what makes for interesting ideas? Do BIG's buildings (for example) really function any differently than a commonsense building?
However I see a striking refusal on architects' side (famous or not) to critically tackle through their architecture the larger context of society, politics, urban change etc. In this regard, I can't help but remember Herzog (or Meuron)'s response to a critic who pointed out that not so long after they loudly announced they're not going to design in non-democratic countries, the Nest appeared. So Herzog (or Meuron) said that actually this is a subversive building because people can gather in its many niches and freely discuss politics (I'm paraphrasing). I wonder how he failed to mention that they designed it in collaboration with Ai Weiwei, what more subversion could you possibly want? I don't think any architecture can be good before getting over this schematic superficiality and actually studies and takes in account how buildings are used and what far-reaching effects they have in their broader context. The rest is just pretty stuff.

Conrad Newel said...

Hi Katherina,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful note.

I am working with a very narrow definition of good architecture here. By no means is it meant to be an attempt at a comprehensive definition as it omits a long laundry list of considerations. As you said, it's not an easy task. The term "good" perhaps qualifies the task subjective and therefore futile. The other problem with trying to nail it would be that it would reduce the term good architecture to a formula and ... well end all discussion; that would be sad and boring.

What I wanted to do in this post was to narrow it down to one or two parameters so that it would be easier to discuss and limit the subjectivity.

What makes for interesting ideas? Bingo! That’s the question that I have been mulling over for past several weeks. I have already started writing and making notes on it for a future post.

Like "good", "interesting" is also subjective and therefore impossible to quantatively define. However, I will argue that there is a collective, though fleeting consensus of “what is interesting” within the architectural community. It is political and social, and filled with juicy tidbits and details.

However, as much as I admire an agree with your criteria and benchmark for what good/interesting architecture should be, it is irrelevant unless you are in a position of influence in the architecture world. This is part of what I find frustrating with the profession.

On the issue of Herzog & de Meuron, I would like to point you to Note #56 - Listen to the little devil on your shoulder: Link here:

Anonymous said...


How contact you ?

Your all time reader.

Conrad Newel said...

Hi Mark,

You can contact me by writing in the text box in the upper right hand side at the top of this page. Directly under my handsome portrait.

or you can email me at