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Silber Calls “Starchitects” on the Carpet

New book casts a critical eye on ego-driven architecture

During his 25 years at the helm of Boston University and then his 7 years as chancellor, John Silber oversaw a robust building program that generated 13.7 million square feet of new, renovated, and remodeled space. The son of an architect, Silber took a hands-on approach to University construction projects, large and small: classroom buildings, research and medical centers, a boathouse, a field house, residence halls, a 6,500-seat arena, and fitness center. He often surprised the architects and builders by reading specs and blueprints and at times challenging their plans. In 2002, Silber was named an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

In his new book, Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art, Silber writes that as early as the 1950s he became alarmed by ego-driven architects who bust budgets and schedules, and who place their artistic vision above the needs of clients and the people who live and work in their creations. He points to Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles as an example: sunlight glinting off its steel curves has raised the temperature in nearby apartments by 15 degrees. Closer to home, last month’s lawsuit by MIT against Gehry over the much-ballyhooed Stata Center, which has cracks, mold, and leakage, appears to bear out Silber’s blunt assessment.

BU Today spoke with Silber about the roles of whimsy and ego in modern architecture.

BU Today: You addressed the American Institute of Architects on art and architecture several years ago. What prompted you to turn the talk into a book?
Silber:
I thought the issues I raised were really important — to address the profession of architecture and remind them it is a practical art and they are not pure artists. They are not sculptors or painters. They are architects who use sculpture and painting, but it has to be used for the interests and needs of the client.

The book is also directed to those who are responsible for hiring such architects, and it argues that they have a fiduciary responsibility to the institution for which they work. Nearly all of these celebrated architects have done their more outrageous work for 501 (c)(3) corporations — for universities, for museums, for symphony orchestras, for performing arts centers. Trustees and administrators of such institutions need to keep in mind that if they’re not spending their own money, they must be particularly certain that what they engage to do fulfills the interests of the institutions they presumably serve.

What are your thoughts on the MIT lawsuit? Do you anticipate more of these kinds of lawsuits?
It’s a confirmation of what I’ve said about Gehry’s work. It was not satisfactory, and now the people in MIT have acknowledged this in a very spectacular and public way by suing him. I’m not sure what the outcome of that suit would be. I wouldn’t speculate on that. I haven’t read the complaint. I haven’t read the answer of Gehry’s lawyers. But off the top of my head, I think Gehry has a pretty strong defense in the fact that he was hired. If MIT had studied his work, knowing it was habitual for him to overrun budgets and design a building that was very late in construction, I think a lawyer can make a good case for saying, “You get what you pay for.”

To what extent did you run up against architects of the absurd when you were president of BU?
I had one or two architects who would come up with what I refer to as “Theoryspeak,” using Tom Wolfe’s phrase. They would talk about the very important element of some outrageous design that would cost more money, but had the effect of accomplishing some aesthetic goal. I reminded more than one of them that I wasn’t interested in their philosophical theories. I was interested in their work as architects.

Are there buildings on the BU campus that fall under the category of architecture of the absurd?
The Mugar Memorial Library, the law school building, the student union. Spanish architect Josep Lluis Sert put a patio in the middle of the student union, where Metcalf Hall now stands. It was absolutely useless space, could never be used. It was hot as the devil in the summer because of the high walls around it. There was no breeze. And in other times of the year, it was filled with water or snow. It was a swimming pool. It would cost us $100,000 a year just to stop the leaks. We put a roof over it and made it into the Metcalf Hall ballroom. It cost about a million dollars to outengineer Sert on that building. But over a 10-year period, we saved a million dollars in repairs.

A fair number of examples in your book can be found in the United States. Is there something about America that lends itself to this kind of phenomenon?

You have a lot of very wealthy 501(c)(3) institutions. But there’s the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the addition proposed by Daniel Libeskind to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I think the worst is Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

How has your book been received in the architectural community?

I think my book will be well received by the architectural community. Before it came out, I got a call from a distinguished Canadian architect named Jack Diamond, who congratulated me on having written the book and said that it was long overdue.

Has anyone in the Gehry camp commented on it?
They haven’t commented to me. I imagine they’ve commented among themselves.

What is your idea of a perfect building? Is it possible to be whimsical and practical at the same time?
Sure, look at Antonio Gaudi’s work. Güell Park in Barcelona is a beautifully whimsical park with serpentine benches for people to sit on and those wonderful animals he has over the staircases. Almost everything that Gaudi has done has a whimsical attitude about it. One of his buildings has a dragon roof, for example. Why would you make the roof in the shape of a dragon? It’s a good idea to shed water. It wasn’t absurd. It was quite harmonious. It fit with the rest of the building.

What do you think of architects like Gehry strictly in terms of artistry?
I really don’t know. I think Gehry has begun to make jewelry for Tiffany’s. That’s a perfectly suitable thing for Gehry to be doing because you don’t live in your necklace or bracelet or earrings. Consequently, he can use all the whimsy and imagination he has, and it’ll be perfectly consistent with the purpose of what he’s doing.

I don’t think his Disney Concert Hall is beautiful. I think it looks like a junkyard. I think it’s captured the imagination of the public. So has Bilbao. But the buildings are not weathering well. They can’t because of the exposure.

If Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum were a sculpture instead of a building, it would certainly have an interesting shape. It probably would be very pleasing to people who like that type of sculpture.

If it can be called a trend, how would you propose that the trend of architecture of the absurd be reversed?
I think it will be reversed. I think my book will help to reverse it. Most important, clients need to stop being intimidated by these spin doctors.

John Silber will be discussing his book this evening, December 4, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble at BU, 660 Beacon St., in Kenmore Square.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.