Are Architects Performance Artists? A Conference Addresses 'Performativity'

In SHoP’s hometown, capital-A Architecture would seem to be more ascendant than ever. Surely this is the first time in

In SHoP’s hometown, capital-A Architecture would seem to be more ascendant than ever. Surely this is the first time in history that the most significant New York buildings are being named—or branded, anyway—after their architects: see Nouvel Chelsea (100 11 Avenue) or New York by Gehry (8 Spruce Street). Puritans might blanch about the condofication (or in the case of the Gehry tower, high-end rentalization) of serious architecture, but the residential pretensions of the hyper-rich seem to be privileging design in a way eight decades of corporate benevolence maintained only fitfully, and temporarily. (Chrysler and Lever Brothers have long cleared out of their gleaming headquarters; unlike makers of soap and sedans, the financial-services industry hardly seems interested in the chimerical goodwill of an eponymous landmark.)

Look beneath the starchitect marquees, however, and Gregg Pasquarelli’s unease about architects’ ghettoization as merely “the people who make the pictures of buildings” seems more prescient. Linking the wild menagerie of high-profile, high-status Manhattan towers are a small number of faceless megafirms, tasked with translating the visionaries into concrete and steel. (SHoP was added to Atlantic Yards to do something similar, if converse: add a modicum of vision to Kansas City McStadium specialists Ellerbe Becket.) What does it mean for advancing—or arresting—the “performance” or “practice” of making buildings that Mr. Nouvel’s sleek 40 Mercer shares its architect of record, SLCE, with Robert A.M. Stern’s classicist behemoth 15 Central Park West and dozens of condo projects totaling some seven million square feet a year? Or that the ubiquitous structural-engineering outfit Cantor Seinuk is behind Mr. Gehry’s metallic waveforms at 8 Spruce, Herzog & de Meuron’s glass-wall cubism at 56 Leonard Street, and that most banal specter of un-architecture, 1 World Trade Center?

Developers value architects like never before— the “value-add” of name brand design is more tangible in the Condo Age—but this may have the ironic effect of further reducing architecture to just another consultant specialty. Skyline connoisseurs rejoiced when Rem Koolhaas, the architecture-speak icon who wrote Delirious New York, received his first Manhattan commission in 2007, for a whimsical, inverted-ziggurat on 22nd Street. By 2009, scandal-plagued developer Slazer Enterprises had quietly cancelled Mr. Koolhaas’s tower but was still touting his interior-design work on neighboring 1 Madison Park, the hubristic obelisk since foreclosed and still unfinished. Here was, literally, the architect as window dressing.

Of course, architects—even starchitects—eventually die (Mr. Nouvel is 65, Mr. Gehry is 82); will architecture live? The second day of the ACSA seminar turned, naturally enough, to pedagogy. Cornell architecture professor Kevin Pratt described his collaborations with computer scientists and engineers.

“In my mind it has to go to some basic fundamentals,” he said. “Like how does a computer work? How do you program it? What the heck is it doing? What are the basics of thermodynamics? It would be really hard for us to talk to each other if one of us didn’t know what an integral is.”

Mr. Pratt bemoaned his department’s recent abolishment of its calculus requirement. Parts of the crowd stirred with skepticism.

“Mathematics is important. It just is,” he insisted. “We need a common language…. For some reason, the language in architecture is the language of badly translated French continental philosophy, which I think is unfortunate.”

Are Architects Performance Artists? A Conference Addresses 'Performativity'