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. For those joining us late, background here, here, and here.
Many interesting and even titillating tales and perspectives have arrived, which I'll dole out and which will eventually force me back to the long-intended topic of big-city urban design in places like China. But as a start, here is an "equal-time" statement from Fred Kent, the man I described as the "insistent character" who challenged Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He writes:
As the questioner from the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival seeking Frank Gehry's views about public spaces, let me take my turn to comment about what unfolded. I have been working to improve public life in cities around the world for almost 40 years, and I am disappointed but not surprised at the reactions of both Gehry and his champion Thomas Pritzker. 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...not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects.
For them to accuse me of using their fame to get attention for myself and my organization speaks to their insecurity and isolation from the larger world around them. I was a speaker at the Aspen Festival two years ago [ed note: I heard the speech, and it was very good], and attended this year to be part of the great exchange of ideas that goes on. Gehry is mistaken when he claimed that I "followed" and "badgered" Pritzker. I ran into Pritzker when I was out for dinner with friends and followed up on my question about public space, which Mr Pritzker had said he did not hear because as moderator of the session he was thinking about how to bring it to a close.
At that session, I merely asked a simple question to both of them [ed note: "merely" asked but also "repeatedly" asked]: Why we can't create "iconic" destinations with "iconic" buildings that take advantage of local assets and aspirations, including culture, history, sustainability and sense of place.
Afterwards, a number of people came up to thank me for asking such a bold question.
To me the Pritzker Prize, established by Thomas Pritzker's late father as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architecture, is part of the reason architecture today seems so constricted around such a limited idea of design. The lucrative award directs vast attention toward a particular style of architecture that is narrowly focused on the latest shapes, forms, materials and metaphors while ignoring other promising possibilities in the field.
I hope that the design establishment will begin to recognize the emergence of interest among young designers and the public as a whole in making great places rather "branded", "iconic", stand alone buildings that never give a thought to the broader context of their surroundings. Design should become a robust profession where talented practitioners with broad skills visions play an important social role in building great cities and communities from the ground up. I did not expect Mr. Gehry to share this vision in its entirety, but I was surprised by his stark refusal to even entertain the topic at what is supposed to be a festival of ideas.
Let me offer a little about the organization I have led for 34 years. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) promotes a vision of design known as "Placemaking", which has become an international movement helping citizens create livable, lively, prosperous and sustainable communities. PPS has worked in more than 2500 communities in 49 states and 35 nations. It as been an enormously rewarding experience to partner with people who are actively engaged in in fostering the kinds of activities and settings that bring people together in public spaces. We provide resources that enable them to determine their own sense of place and to become engaged in shaping their own future on the neighborhood, city or even regional level. Our work is guided by respect for the experience of local citizens and stakeholders, which offers everything needed to know about what how to make their community thrive beyond their wildest expectations.
Why Frank Gehry and Thomas Pritzker did not want to talk about such an exciting development in the field remains a mystery to me.
More to come.