By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 16, 2008
When buildings receive media attention, why do the architects who design them often go unmentioned?
For example, do you know who designed the iconic Beijing National Stadium, wrapped in metallic latticework and nicknamed the Bird's Nest? It has been shown continually throughout NBC's coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Views of the huge, curvaceous stadium, at times pulsating with colored light or spewing fireworks, will remain among the most memorable Olympic images. Television cameras have explored the stadium inside and out, day and night. One of NBC's many human-interest stories focused on the construction workers who built the stadium. Another offered a comment from one of the structural engineers.
But during the fantastic opening ceremonies, as well as many hours of broadcasting this week, I never heard NBC mention the stadium's architects, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. Considered among the world's most creative designers, Herzog & de Meuron is responsible for the extraordinary de Young Museum in San Francisco and London's Tate Modern, a former electric power generating plant transformed into an art museum on the south bank of the Thames.
But Herzog & de Meuron are not celebrities, and given the American media's reporting tendencies, the firm is unlikely to become so here.
Unless an architect already enjoys celebrity status, typically attributable to idiosyncratic and much-ballyhooed work, his or her identity is often omitted from coverage of buildings. Conversely, when stories about buildings by famous architects appear -- the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry -- the designers are invariably cited. But the list of celebrity architects is very short, especially compared with the number of architects who produce newsworthy work. Failing to acknowledge designers of newsworthy buildings is not new, nor is it unique to broadcast or print journalism. Occasionally, dedication plaques on buildings omit the name of the architect, and sometimes architects are not acknowledged during ribbon-cutting events celebrating a building's opening.
Why do such omissions occur, and why does it matter?
If a story concerns a building but not its design per se, then journalists generally assume that their audience has no interest in knowing who designed the building, especially if the designer is not well known. Design authorship is usually considered factually irrelevant. Even stories about proposed projects -- housing, office buildings, schools, churches, libraries -- tend to focus on controversy surrounding the proposals, which may involve design issues, without identifying the project architects.
But part of the explanation is cultural, not editorial.
Most Americans are pragmatists, utilitarian in their attitudes about architecture. Aesthetics are secondary to functional and economic considerations. Consequently, practicing architects are frequently treated not as artists but rather as part of an assortment of expert consultants hired to produce complex drawings showing contractors what to build.
Thus, while paying homage to a few notable architects, America's culture is generally more interested in admiring and celebrating those who provide entertainment, not those who create imaginatively designed buildings.
In Europe, by contrast, art and architecture are deeply embedded in history, culture and popular consciousness. Talented architects, European or otherwise, are commonly viewed as artistic heroes who deserve public acknowledgment and acclaim. More than Americans, Europeans seem to respect and care deeply about those who shape the physical environment.
Talented architects in the United States are rarely deemed artistic heroes. Most firms vigorously compete for commissions; invest thousands of hours executing each project; cope with continual critiques and periodic rejections of their work; run stringent regulatory gantlets to get designs approved; and finally hope that the form and quality of each project, if and when built, will not be compromised.
Few American architects acquire fame, political power or great wealth. Public and professional recognition for their artistry, not remuneration, is what they seek and most appreciate. But architects also produce aesthetically mediocre buildings, which the media likewise should not ignore. In either case, consistently disclosing design authorship does not seem too much to ask.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.