Starchitects and The Bilbao Effect: New Urbanism's Role

The employment of “starchitects” in modern cities has seen a drastic change over the past few decades. Iconic buildings shaped skylines during the mid 20th century under the direction of names like Mies van de Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Frank Gehry. But when the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao helped bring the city out of economic decline, the entire world wanted to replicate this architectural remedy.

BIG's proposed landmark for Phoenix

Architecture firm BIG's proposed rendering for a landmark in Phoenix, AZ.

“The Bilbao Effect” refers to the trend of cities and developers employing landmark architecture to help attract tourism and the economic development that comes with it. However when the desire to improve the skyline trumps the desire to improve the city itself, this phenomenon can prove detrimental. This results in a city lavish in form, but lousy in function. Author Witold Rybczynski has been an outspoken critic of this phenomenon, noting that “the charged atmosphere promotes flamboyance rather than careful thought, and favors the glib and obvious over the subtle and nuanced”.

Robert Moses looked at a city from the sky, Jane Jacobs looked at a city from the street, now it is almost as if current city planners are looking at cities from the side. Is this a happy medium, or a complete diversion from either forms of urban planning? Modern cities limit their potential when they obsess over aesthetic structures and disregard the development of the public space surrounding them. By incorporating new urbanist practices into the design of these projects, we can help prevent a trend of aesthetically innovative buildings with serious connectivity problems.


 Tactical Urbanism in Dallas

When Dallas enlisted famed architect I.M. Pei to design a new city hall in 1977, much of the motivation was to change the city’s literal and figurative image. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy still tainted the city’s reputation, and Dallas wanted a trademark building for the skyline of its future. While the modernist inverted pyramid design provided an iconic structure, its surrounding unused plaza served as dead space. Its lack of human scale provided little reason to congregate in the plaza, and thus prevented this space from being any more than a thoroughfare. Despite the fervent activism of William Whyte, whos 1983 study called for a better incorporation of downtown building and public space, the plaza remained overwhelmingly ignored for over three decades.

In the past few years, community-lead urbanism has made efforts to activate the plaza. Jason Roberts, best known from his work with the "Better Block" project , and Brent Brown, a founding Director of the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, took action in April 2011 by personally bringing life to the space. They brought live music, games, and food vendors to the plaza one afternoon and attracted droves of people. Though the event did entail the hard work and dedication of those involved in its operation, it did not require immensely deep pockets. DIY-urbanism has proved that anyone with enough desire and passion can make a difference in their communities without going broke. The community-led urbanism group Revolutionary Pants has since assumed responsibility of Friends of Living Plaza, helping to organize the now weekly affair.

Dallas police play giant chess in the plaza

Police play giant chess in the Dallas City Plaza.

Though “Starchitects” receive worldwide acclaim for renowned structures, they sometimes fail to design beyond the parameters of their buildings. The hard-work of the community urbanism exemplified in Dallas has succeeded in re-activating public space in cities across the globe. But while tactical urbanism succeeds at activating dead public spaces, better planning practices can prevent such instances in future development.


Building Iconic Plazas, not Condos

Private developers also fight over landmark architecture, however they do so with much deeper pockets than public entities. While this financial incentive can escalate architectural design in a way public interest cannot, it can lead towards a confinement of design within the development.

James Kuntsler critiqued the harmful effects even esteemed architectural design can have on public space in his nearly decade-old TED Talk. He emphasizes the importance of permeable public space. That is, open plazas or areas which encourage people, commerce, and culture to constantly pass in and out.

Melbourne's Federation Square at night

Melbourne's Federation Square at night.

While “The Bilbao Effect” has had both marginally successful and unsuccessful results, the building design cannot alone dictate this success. New Urbanism’s impact in this outcome serves paramount, as celebrating shared space can serve as a major asset in developing landmarks. Instead of prioritizing innovative buildings and structures, why not prioritize iconic parks, plazas, and squares? Cities and their inhabitants benefit more when a starchitect is employed to design their next city park, not luxury condominiums and corporate campuses.

Progressive and more innovative buildings undoubtedly serve many purposes socially, economically, and environmentally. Architects will continue to push design and efficiency boundaries for future buildings and structures. But when innovative architecture is awarded to the highest private bidder, the masses often miss out on these achievements. Privatized buildings tailor their attention towards the experience of the paying tenants, not so much the public impact of a pseudo-landmark.


Instead of developing a morphology based on connectivity and shared spaces, cities across the globe are importing ideas and identity through iconic architecture. Cities with constantly changing skylines must place an importance on what the public experiences instead of just what they see.



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