Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The cult of celebrity is as synonymous to Pinoy culture as a cappuccino is to a latte — same same but different, but really just the same. It is what propels our noontime viewing habits, political inclinations, the success of the millennial business model, and the comfort of over two million OFWs around the world (I mark myself guilty).
Unscathed from this fixation is the industry of architecture, of which I am a member. Though not as pervasive as it is on global media, the term “starchitect” describes one such “celebrity architect.” It is essentially a buzzword wittingly invented to mark architects whose work have reached a certain status or awareness among the general public.
In the Philippines, I would say we have a few — or at least, a typical roll call of names that we associate with contemporary architecture in the Philippines. These names are those spread across glossies, often attached to larger, landmark projects, and captioned alongside with other persons-about-town. I have met many of them, been in a number of events with them; all of them admirable in the successes they have achieved for our profession.
So what happens once one reaches starchitect status? What happens when the name recall essentially becomes more prominent than the rigorous professional work it entails to put a building together? To converge all the technical, spacial, and psychological aspects that go into a creating functional, life-enriching places? Well, just that. Basically, all the latter become vulnerable to taking the back seat. The architect’s “signature,” be it in the name or the look, becomes more sought-after than the design’s performance.
Designers of this “status” tend to get lumped together into a pool to be hand-picked for any and every marketable development. The byproduct may seem a bit harmless, even expected to most, but brings me reservations as an architect. I have witnessed more highly specialized technical structures awarded to residential (albeit masterful) designers; theater designs relegated to masterplanners, and interior designers responsible for a new city.
You don’t really realize how much the built environment shapes our daily lives if you experience a daily commute that isn’t 1.5-hour long; have parks you can actually hang out in; work in an office with tall ceilings and a view of the sky; or essentially, live anywhere outside our metropolis.
What most people outside the industry do not immediately grasp is the amount of technical expertise it takes to make a building stand, let alone look good and make its inhabitants happy. So designing a house is as different from designing a stadium as tailoring a suit is different from draping a gown. The base skills are the same, but an extra layer of know-how is required to masterfully make it work. Sometimes the cross-over of skills can be enriching, but it can also shift the attention away from enhancing a building's technical and functional performance, all for the sake of project branding.
It is not to say that the phenomenon of “starchitecture” and high-performing designs are mutually exclusive, but it is important to question the assumption that the former brings about the latter. The issue with starchitecture is the opportunity it creates for ‘star power’ to reinforce the perception that architecture is predominantly about artistic form. And not about how well it can weather wear and time, or how it serves to ease the everyday of its denizens.
There is a danger when you attach celebrity — and to an extent, privilege — to anything, more so to a profession that, at its core, is a public service. The lives of the people who inhabit it can end up drawing the short end of the stick. You don’t really realize how much the built environment shapes our daily lives if you experience a daily commute that isn’t 1.5-hour long; have parks you can actually hang out in; work in an office with tall ceilings and a view of the sky; or essentially, live anywhere outside our metropolis.
We have developed a tolerance for the lack of performance and people-centered design because they have shaped our understanding of space for all of our city lives. They may not necessarily be a product of starchitecture, but they are distant cousins of the problems that come with celebrity culture.
So is starchitecture all bad? No. Is it all good? Of course not. To think in absolutes would be naive in any scenario. Do I have my reservations about the term? As much as anyone would. So what value does the heightened awareness of a professional bring to our local industry?
Perhaps the answer is not in the name, nor the buzzword, but in the stage the celebrity is set. In the same way the architect’s chief role is help shape the lives of the people it is commissioned to serve; the starchitect exists not to detach their work from its purpose, but to shape their celebrity into a lens into the ‘backstage’ of architecture — the less glamorous work that makes a good building perform.