Fresh thinking from all sides shows the promise of an emerging architecture of place

A few weeks ago we sent out the “Smackdown with Frank Gehry” blog post to our mailing list. We were stunned by the response. More than a hundred people commented on our site, and another fifty emailed me personally with their views. People came down on both sides of the issue about whether iconic architecture largely fails at making good public spaces. But whatever their views, everyone offered insightful and interesting thoughts.

The majority of those responding felt that that Placemaking and iconic buildings can and should go together, with many of them introducing fresh ideas on how to achieve this marriage of yin and yang. A number of people recommended that landscape architecture and urban design need to play a stronger role in iconic projects, beginning at the design stage.

Our thinking on the subject was substantially enriched by these stimulating comments, which is why we are reprinting a number of them here. For the full-scale discussion visit our blog.

The Emperor’s Iconic Clothes

I have followed Chris Alexander’s research over the years and talked to him a couple of times. I agree with him that the state of art and architecture in the last 100 years has a lot in common with the parable of the “Emperors New Clothes”. The king stands naked before his people because he has been tricked by his tailors. But only a child dares to call out the truth. Gehry reminds me of the naked king and you remind me of the fearless child.

Having studied architecture, and having withdrawn from it because of its desolate state, I am patiently waiting for the tide to turn. I am waiting for the whispers in the crowd to get louder so that we can one day all shout out in laughter that the emperor has been naked for more than a century.

Didn´t Lincoln say: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. 20th century architecture seems to prove that wrong. It is a mass psychosis of unprecedented proportions. Future generations will look back on us and wonder how this disaster was possible. How could any species be so destructive to its own habitat? Above all – how could they work so hard and have so little fun at the same time?

But I could hear the whisper when I read your blog. Is there hope after all? Can we turn the madness around and start a humane dialogue about the built environment?

Steven Pinker has given a brilliant analysis on the decline of the arts in the past century in his excellent book “The Blank Slate”. He believes and shows quite convincingly, that the arts are and always have been driven to a large degree by more or less conscious desire of the elite to differentiate itself from the masses. With the industrial and educational revolution in the beginning of the last century, classical art lost its differentiating power, because it became available to the masses. The replacement of principles of harmony and beauty with obscurity and conceptual code was the only mechanism to restore the differentiating function of the arts. That’s how modern art came about. This shift in technique turned art and architecture into something which is somewhat interesting, often shocking, but rarely functional, beautiful or harmonious and–above all—it is something , intentionally removed from everyday life.

Of course Gehry would dispute this analysis and label it a pompous claim. Which would conveniently pamper his self image of a elitist artists, who happens to have the aesthetic insight that the masses are just lacking. This arrogance and his refusal to discuss what people feel about the spaces that he and his generation of so called “star architects” have created, seem to be the only remaining strategy to deny the naked truth: the emperor stands before us: naked and fooled.

I hope more and more people are seeing that all this was a delusion and that we can break out of this sad story and make our world a cheerful living place again.

Keep up the good work of asking the simple questions to improve the rules of the game. The time has come. -Marcus Baur


Across the Universe

Gehry practices a bolt down solution for both Building and Place, which in his view is dynamic because of it’s uniqueness and permanence. He fails to recognize that in everything of the Universe, there is no permanent solution and all activity of Man, whether micro or macro, is judged on its regenerative healing capacity for the whole. Therefore, placemaking is a continuing transformation of place which at its core expresses the Universe’s capacity to create pattern integrity. In Gehry’s view, his solution for a specific spot on Earth, does not need to consider anything beyond the physical boundary of his ‘clump’.-Harold Kalke

Focusing on the Civic Environment

“Architecture” is historically the name given to those buildings commissioned by people of great wealth and power to memorialize their importance. Architects court people with enough resources to build “architecture” (Frank Gehry dismisses 95% of buildings as not being “architecture”).

In these times, trophy architects (I find this expression more accurately descriptive), having found compatibility with their patrons, are expressing their clients’ aspirations for immortality through really creative, expressive – and expensive – works, elegies on our present age of excess. Sometimes in breathtaking ways, though as the “melted” building syndrome proceeds, look for them to pop up in degraded form in shopping malls.

The civic environment, on the other hand, is what we all own and collectively use to get where we need to go and, if we design it right, celebrate our civility. It’s a different kind of design. Rather than “express” the will of the powerful through the will of the trophy architect, civic design “reflects” – or should – the will of the people, we who own this space. It seeks to meet the functional, the aesthetic and the “togetherness” needs of the many.

This latter kind of design has been in short supply. Most architecture and even landscape architecture schools, which teach how to conceptualize three dimensionally, holistically, and simultaneously, overwhelmingly extol and promote the patron-architect model as the only way for their students to become true architects. This emphasis, naturally enough, leads to a culture that creates self-expressive “iconic” buildings. Though the balance between the two approaches to design is beginning to even up, people trying to teach urban design still often have an uphill struggle with their object designer colleagues.

Buildings and the civic environment together where we live, and the civic environment part doesn’t get nearly the design attention it should. Trophy architects are not trained in civic design, indeed have chosen a path that extols the individual patron – usually rich – and so tend not to even relate to a position that says the civic realm matters. Thus they rarely contribute to its enhancement, and they more likely debase it with their “look-at-me” fixations. –Mike Dobbins, FAIA and AICP

Someone Who Loves People

Brother Fred – Good for you. Early indigo people are not afraid of a little controversy; we resonate to a frequency of challenging the institutions i.e. seeing behind the masks of Oz; connecting the dots. You have my full support.

My favorite excerpt from the postings to above blog, came from a Harry Pasternak , “The 80 yr. old British/Swedish architect Erskine was asked to define architect. His reply – “someone who loves people!”. I haven’t seen much love coming from architects over the last 60 years.”

And from our friends at the Grateful Dead: “And the whole world full of petty wars Singing “I got mine and you got yours” And the current fashions set the pace Lose your step, fall out of grace And the radical he rant and rage Singing “someone got to turn the page” And the rich man in his summer home, Singing “Just leave well enough alone” But his pants are down, his cover’s blown

And the politicians throwing stones So the kids they dance, they shake their bones Cause its all too clear we’re on our own Sing ashes to ashes, all fall down Ashes to ashes, all fall down

Picture a bright blue ball just spinning, spinning free It’s dizzying, the possibilities” *(excerpt from: “Throwing Stones”, The Grateful Dead, 1982; words by John Perry Barlow** ).* /Thanks for the good juice (energy); Keep on, Keepin’ on!

-Paul Tubbe

Narcissistic Personality Disorder


Look up narcissistic personality disorder on the web. A fertile realm for understanding the phenomenon of Starchitecture.– James Howard Kunstler


Architecture and Placemaking Must Collaborate

Whether or not Mr. X or Mr. Y is pompous is of small importance. Even saints are often hard to get along with … what of it?

The interesting question is whether or not striking, bold architecture is in conflict with the creation of welcoming spaces for people on the street. The avant-garde (post-modernists) scorn as authoritarian attempts to rein in their creative expression. Christopher Alexandrians (such as Nikos Salingaros or PPS) scorn as anti-human post-modern grandiosity and indifference to context. This tension is healthy. It becomes dangerous only if one side should ‘win,’ because both the creatively new and the contextually fitting are equally needed.

The problem with some of Gehry’s work is not so much its ‘look’ as its scale, and its lack of relationship to what was there already. Usually when modern and post-modern architecture is hideous it is not so much the fault of the design as the inaptness of the scale and/or the absence of a harmonious relationship with what surrounds it. That is what creates its emotional coldness. A Mies van der Rohe-type “office park” for example, is typically awful, but the same building-type, if blended into a row of skyscrapers of similar size (but varied design) has an entirely different feel.

Lest this statement boil down to a banal “let’s all be friends,” I will add that it is in almost every case a lack of relatedness that cripples our public spaces, and to this extent the cocky star architects truly do need to learn from tradition. –Paul Grenier



I think Gehry himself, unlike his work, is really old to not have the time to consider disagreeable questions. I’m 81 years old and unlike Gehry, I greatly enjoy questions that may shake me up by challenging my notions of form or my ways of place making or the ethics I use to establish design priorities.

Perhaps more to the point of your criticism that no architect has evaluated their work after construction, during the years that I practiced architectural design in my Philadelphia office, I conducted post-occupancy evaluations as well as commissioning them to be done with various social scientists. All these evaluations provided my design practice with significantly insightful knowledge that modified our design and its priorities.-Louis Sauer, FAIA



The question “why iconic architecture so often fails to create good public places” makes it seem that to create iconic architecture, good public spaces have to be sacrificed, and vice versa. It is possible to have both, and in fact both can reinforce one another. -Wei Kiang


It is ignorant to say that architects should ignore context and not engage with the open space outside their buildings. The allied professionals should work together to make a place an active and appealing destination. [Architects have] a responsiblility to the cities where [their] buildings are built to engage the city outside. This is not just the architect’s job. , it is the planner’s and the plan checker’s and the landscape architect’s job. It is all of our jobs. The user will ultimately make or break the place, but the user has to want to stick around. -Alison Arnett



Starchitects’ iconic buildings could enhance Public Space as long as the Public Space is designed by someone who understands the dimensions of those places and their uses and the starchitect understands the relationship of his building to the public place. The collaboration of Urban Designer and starchitect could produce a great result. -Tony Carrasco



This debate has set up a false dichotomy. The following is my personal polemic on the subject.

All architecture has a context; some projects (most) should mesh with it on a fairly intimate level, while for some the goal of the project is to stand out from the surroundings. This does not mean that a “landmark” project (a monument of some sort, whether it has a function or not) has no relationship to its surroundings and should not consider them; it simply means that this relationship is different than it would be for other building types. Who would say that the Sydney Opera House does not respond to its location on the harbor? Yet it is certainly not what I would call conventionally “contextual”.

Most buildings should not be this type of isolated monument. An office building should not receive this type of treatment, for example (Foster’s London “Gherkin”, Nouvel’s Barcelona “male member”, Gehry’s New York IAC Building).

Iconic architecture is in no way at odds with good urban design. In fact, Gehry himself has created some buildings that relate well to their context and yet are quite innovative (his Berlin DG Bank, for example).

Usually these are the structures where his design inspiration either came out of the program and context or serendipitously just happened to fit them well. This type of design, where a strong concept and a functional urban space meet, is not a contradiction in terms; it is just harder to do.

The best architects are the ones who are also urban designers, whether officially titled so or not. And highly creative designs are possible without ignoring the surrounding environment; it just takes more creativity to find the right solution and certain mental toughness to reject a “favorite idea” that does not work. -Gordon Ingerson



As an urban designer employed by local government, the whole architecture vs. context issue is one I deal with every day. I feel that there are a number of key stumbling blocks to getting decent, integrated outcomes.

Firstly, a lot of public space in cities is not in private ownership. Many are under the control of a city authority struggling to deliver basic services, with little budgetary ability to design and build show-stopping public places. Many spaces are under the control of road departments. Before criticising the lack of context, be sure you know who owns/controls the space. It may not be an architect’s fault that a pretty building has a rubbish space next to it. I don’t condone this, but it’s the reality of ratepayer [taxpayer]-funded organisations.

Secondly, architects work for clients who are paying them to design a BUILDING and that’s where their focus and resources go.

Thirdly, there seems to be some sort of hierarchy of importance in the minds of architects. Architects are at the top, and if they happen to be collaborating with a half-decent landscape architect employed by the client, they are also worthy. The person financing the project is also up there in status. Urban designers are further down the ladder and planners and traffic engineers languish at the bottom of the heap.

However, it’s not the architects who should take the blame for soulless place—they are only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. It’s those who fail to co-ordinate the various players in the city development game. Or fail to even try. In the end, we’re all after the same outcome—attractive, safe, interesting, vital cities.

So Gehry is not the bad man, and neither is Kent. Each has their own passion. What is a shame is that these passions don’t overlap more frequently, stirring these lively and necessary debates and raising everyone’s consciousness about the need to work in collaboration. -Sarah



Stunning architecture creates a sense of place, but is quite different to place making. I believe we need both.

Rather than debating around the right and the wrong, how about collaboration and co-existence? Take the best from each and improve both. The winner take all approach you are embarking on is destructive and from a constructionist, a place maker and a community builder it seems at odds with your philosophy. -Steve



Certainly there is a need for special buildings that lift the spirit – jewels like the Guggenheim in Bilboa. They need to sit in open space to be viewed and admired. But most buildings are like theater sets, providing a backcloth [backdrop] to life that takes place in public space. Unfortunately, the tendency in the United States to see every site as an island fit for a jewel destroys the sense of urbanity.

Hence the importance of Fred Kent’s question. If we are to create cities that have streets and spaces that support the life of the community, his question should be answered rather than ignored. -John Minett



Gehry has helped us question tradition but like most “starchitects” he deals mostly in the design of objects in space – no context. Most modernists of the last century flipped a bird towards the urban fabric, so this is not a new problem. The problem I see is students also turning their back on a cohesive fabric and designing sculpture, not architecture.-Erfling



It’s impossible to create safer cities without design professionals designing with relationships in mind. There are many situations where buildings are built in our cities where the architect has never been to the city or the site they are building on. Structures that have no relationship to their immediate surroundings are disregarded by the people who live and work around them– the very people we want to take partial ownership of and defend the building when the owner is not around.

Iconic structures that do not take context into account become anonymous around their exteriors; especially after business hours, and this void can be taken up by less desirable activities and even offenders.

It’s the city that has absolute control over how they are developed and designed and responsibility should start there for holding design and development accountable. It should also seek to involve the immediate community at the design table as a valued partner instead of just going through the motions of holding the required community meetings.

We do know how to design better and safer without limiting creative process. It should be a collaborative effort and not done in isolation. -Greg Perkins

We live within the context of the whole. The true experience of city is our interconnectedness. -Parker Dale

Placemaking is one the most important aspects of any modern urban project, and it remains neglected. …It is the [architecture] profession’s responsibility to assist the community and the client to create wonderful buildings with solid context and good placemaking elements. I am positive a man of great genius like Mr. Gehry could accomplish both with little impact on his art, just as a man with the passion and focus of Kent can help merge the two. The need to do so is incumbent upon the industry and to imply they are mutually exclusive in some situations is ridiculous. -Matt Magallanes

Landscape architects and planners know how to create spaces well, maybe they should have a stronger roll in the design process? My assumption is that building architects are in complete control, thus their big egos and their reluctance to answer to criticism from people of other fields.

An iconic building that people want to be near to is a lot better than an iconic building that people want to stay away from. Why make a building that can only be enjoyed in photos? -Kevin



Eero Saarinen made a great quote once that is relative to this discussion: ” Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan” [He is a] starchitect that ‘got it right’ in my mind -Pedro Campos



All of our [firm’s] mixed-use projects are centered around a traditional main street and a town square or plaza. It matters not whether the project location is suburban or urban, the public spaces are designed first and incorporated into the siteplan as part of the transportation grid. The building footprints…office, residential, or hotel…are then incorporated into the siteplan in locations that support the smooth flow of human and vehicular traffic throughout the grid. “Iconic architecture” is architecture that supports what happens at street level, and the category includes a lot more than just buildings.

In our projects we “condo” all the buildings so that we will always own and control what happens at the street level. Weston or Marriott, for example, may own the hotel, but we own the ground floor. Thus, we can program (control) the mix of retail, restaurant, entertainment and civic uses…in essence, exactly like a mall developer programs the merchandising plan inside its mall.

A picture is worth 1000 words…go to for a good example of what we call “placemaking,” and why the architecture must always compliment and support the sense of place. -Howard Jensen

The Power of Place is What Makes Design Great

The architect’s entire focus is the building, the placemaker’s focus is the people. Breathtaking architecture cannot be conducive to conversations. Literally. the architect’s client is the building’s owner and its residents , not the public.

And then there are the models, still a major selling tool for architects—a tool that should be banned: it delivers beautiful buildings when viewed from an altitude of 1,000 ft. Let’s hope that virtual reality technology will be adopted rapidly by the industry and will finally chage the way buildings are envisionned at the street level -Christine Berthet



Coming from a Landscape Architect’s position I would one day love to see a ‘true’ collaboration between a architect and a landscape architect. Too many times are there is a fight for power.

As for Gehry’s designs I do believe they are great pieces of architecture and that many people around the world have come to appreciate and love. But they are also a one time deal. Not many come back to his architecture to meet a friend or take a lunch break…you see it and it’s almost just left as that. They’re a dream for photographers but not for the people who should truly enjoy the space, the people who live by it. -Judy Lee



Social ills in cities like homeless encampments, crime and grafitti are decreased or erased if we can put our finger on the “je ne se quoi” of what makes a place a place where other people want to linger and stay. Most people don’t think about this, what makes them stay or not stay, they just move on. I think sometimes designers think less about the concept. William “Holly” Whyte advocated for the drawing people to a place to avoid such ills and make cities livable. Whyte states “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people”. The ultimate point being that how the public uses space, and would like to use space, should be the basis of the design. This is achieved by observation (in Whyte’s case, ground breaking studies using path analysis and time lapse photography) and asking the users. -Alison Arnett



We need to slow down and create actual places for people to go to , and actually interact with their surroundings, not just some fancy brickwork. A young person such as myself is crying out for usable and functionable places in which we can all enjoy life. -Matthew Morgan



I think public spaces need to translate “spirit of place”, responding to cultural and environmental heritage and help improve citizens’ quality of life…Humility and participatory processes are required in order to produce real “works of art”! -Magali Jurado

Public spaces that are planned well welcome visitors with a sense of place and local flavor. This is what makes people come back and offers the sense of place to its resident, keeping the local economy viable year round. Iconic architecture alone without a sense of place makes for empty public spaces and defeats the purpose of sense of place. -Peggie Ehlers



The Emperor Has No Clothes: Responses to the Frank Gehry Debate was last modified: March 7th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces