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Silber Calls “Starchitects” on the Carpet

New book casts a critical eye on ego-driven architecture


BU President Emeritus John Silber (Hon.'95) discusses his new book tonight

During his 25 years at the helm of Boston University and then his 7years as chancellor, John Silber oversaw a robust building program thatgenerated 13.7 million square feet of new, renovated, and remodeledspace. The son of an architect, Silber took a hands-on approach toUniversity construction projects, large and small: classroom buildings,research and medical centers, a boathouse, a field house, residencehalls, a 6,500-seat arena, and fitness center. He often surprised thearchitects and builders by reading specs and blueprints and at timeschallenging their plans. In 2002, Silber was named an honorary memberof 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 byego-driven architects who bust budgets and schedules, and who placetheir artistic vision above the needs of clients and the people wholive and work in their creations. He points to Frank Gehry’s DisneyConcert Hall in Los Angeles as an example: sunlight glinting off itssteel curves has raised the temperature in nearby apartments by 15degrees. Closer to home, last month’s lawsuit by MIT against Gehry overthe 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 andarchitecture several years ago. What prompted you to turn the talk intoa book?
I thought the issues I raised were reallyimportant — to address the profession of architecture and remind themit is a practical art and they are not pure artists. They are notsculptors or painters. They are architects who use sculpture andpainting, but it has to be used for the interests and needs of theclient.

The book is also directed to those who are responsiblefor hiring such architects, and it argues that they have a fiduciaryresponsibility to the institution for which they work. Nearly all ofthese celebrated architects have done their more outrageous work for501 (c)(3) corporations — for universities, for museums, for symphonyorchestras, for performing arts centers. Trustees and administrators ofsuch institutions need to keep in mind that if they’re not spendingtheir own money, they must be particularly certain that what theyengage to do fulfills the interests of the institutions they presumablyserve.

What are your thoughts on the MIT lawsuit? Do you anticipate more of these kinds of lawsuits?
It’sa confirmation of what I’ve said about Gehry’s work. It was notsatisfactory, and now the people in MIT have acknowledged this in avery spectacular and public way by suing him. I’m not sure what theoutcome of that suit would be. I wouldn’t speculate on that. I haven’tread the complaint. I haven’t read the answer of Gehry’s lawyers. Butoff the top of my head, I think Gehry has a pretty strong defense inthe fact that he was hired. If MIT had studied his work, knowing it washabitual for him to overrun budgets and design a building that was verylate 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?
Ihad 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 veryimportant element of some outrageous design that would cost more money,but had the effect of accomplishing some aesthetic goal. I remindedmore than one of them that I wasn’t interested in their philosophicaltheories. 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?
TheMugar Memorial Library, the law school building, the student union.Spanish architect Josep Lluis Sert put a patio in the middle of thestudent union, where Metcalf Hall now stands. It was absolutely uselessspace, could never be used. It was hot as the devil in the summerbecause of the high walls around it. There was no breeze. And in othertimes of the year, it was filled with water or snow. It was a swimmingpool. It would cost us $100,000 a year just to stop the leaks. We put aroof over it and made it into the Metcalf Hall ballroom. It cost abouta million dollars to outengineer Sert on that building. But over a10-year period, we saved a million dollars in repairs.

A fairnumber of examples in your book can be found in the United States. Isthere something about America that lends itself to this kind ofphenomenon?

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

How has your book been received in the architectural community?

Ithink my book will be well received by the architectural community.Before it came out, I got a call from a distinguished Canadianarchitect named Jack Diamond, who congratulated me on having writtenthe 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 beautifullywhimsical park with serpentine benches for people to sit on and thosewonderful animals he has over the staircases. Almost everything thatGaudi has done has a whimsical attitude about it. One of his buildingshas a dragon roof, for example. Why would you make the roof in theshape of a dragon? It’s a good idea to shed water. It wasn’t absurd. Itwas quite harmonious. It fit with the rest of the building.

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

Idon’t think his Disney Concert Hall is beautiful. I think it looks likea junkyard. I think it’s captured the imagination of the public. So hasBilbao. But the buildings are not weathering well. They can’t becauseof the exposure.

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

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

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.

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