The popular real estate and urbanism blog Curbed created this image for its summary of the emerging conversation.The popular real estate and urbanism blog Curbed created this image to describe the ongoing debate (Photo credit: Curbed LA)

This year’ Aspen Ideas Festival lived up to its name with a lively exchange about Placemaking vs. the iconic architecture of Frank Gehry and other “starchitects”. But not in the way anyone expected.

When PPS president Fred Kent, a speaker at the Festival two years ago, posed a question to Gehry in the Q-and-A following Gehry’s presentation, the world-famous architect refused to answer.

When Kent repeated the question about why iconic architecture so often fails to create good public places, Gehry called him “pompous” and waved his hand in a gesture that eminent political journalist James Fallows described as “a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling.” Fallows described the scene in his influential blog for The Atlantic.

And Fallows’ blog became the place where ideas about what constitutes great architecture were debated. This was because Gehry refused to engage in discussion about his work, even at an event billed as a Festival of Ideas.

Frank Gehry brushing aside Fred Kent and his question, as moderator Tom Pritzker (responsible for the Pritzker Prize) looks on.

Gehry responded first in the blog, explaining that he didn’t really want to be at the Festival and that at age 80, he gets “freaked out by petty annoyances.” He also charged that Kent (who remained unnamed in Fallows’ first two blogs and Gehry’s response) was “intent on getting himself a pulpit” and “marketing himself at everyone’s expenses.”

Kent responded in Fallows blog on Friday, writing, “That Gehry was dismissive of the subject itself and so self important in his response shows just how far removed he and other proponents of ‘iconic-for-iconic-sake’ architecture are from the reality of urban life today.

“Around the world citizens are defining their future by focusing on their city’s civic assets, authentic qualities and compelling destinations,” Kent continued, “not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects.”

But what’s most interesting here is not the heated exchange of opinions following a controversial appearance by the most famous architect of our time. It is the wide scope of debate that has been stirred.

David Sucher took up the issue in several postings on his City Comforts blog.

Frank Gehry has been quoted saying "I do not do context", amounting to barren public spaces and a limited scope of responsibility for the architecture profession.

And Fallows himself—probably as famous in news journalism circles as Gehry is in architectural ones—seems fascinated by all the energy sparked by this question about how to create great public places.

On Friday he began his blog with a sense of amazement, “I used to think that a topic like — oh, let’s see, US-China friction — was controversial, or climate change, or Google-v-Microsoft, or McNamara-v-Rumsfeld. That was before I innocently stepped into the crossfire concerning the effect of “star-chitects” like Frank Gehry on the urban landscape.”

Whatever else comes out of this lively discussion, I think it shows that discussions about how we create congenial public places where people can come together is a major issue of our times.

Public space is not just an aesthetic detail, or minor sideshow for the design community.  It’s central to the fabric of lives and future of our society.  Which is why it’s no surprise that opinions on the subject are so strong.

The public space on the waterfront of Bilbao in front of Gehry's building is a site of frequent muggings as a result of the limited reasons to be there.

The public space on the waterfront of Bilbao in front of Gehry's building is a site of frequent muggings as a result of the limited reasons for people to be there.

Related:

PPS Commentary–Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Curbed LA–Frank Gehry Smackdown: Iconic Architecture vs. Public Space

Apsen Ideas Festival–Full Video of Gehry Talk (Kent/Gehry conversation at approx. 54 minute mark)