The starchitect’s time: Is architecture adopting a celebrity culture?

The answer is yes. And before you read any further, please know that I deeply hate the word ‘starchitect’. Sure, it’s not new. In fact, it dates back decades (think Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright) or maybe even centuries (Mimar Sinan), but lately it seems that every other building in the Middle East, and the world, is being designed by a small group of world-renowned architects, known for their wacky behaviour and creative genius.

The allure makes sense – Zaha Hadid buildings have rebranded cities, like the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, while Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is essentially hosting exhibitions before it even opens.

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A building designed by a famous architect contains a particular magnetism. It communicates a city’s confidence in its future and economic strength, and it’s attractive to residents and tourists alike. It essentially says, “We’ve arrived.”

I think many elements have contributed to this saturation, but one particular phenomenon comes to mind above others: as clients more frequently hold design competitions, each open to architects and designers to enter at their own whim, it’s become harder for smaller firms to stand out against such strong crowds.

Of course, countries in the region should continue commissioning starchitects for reasons mentioned above, as well as others, like the guaranteed quality of working with a renowned professional, but there needs to be more room in the industry (from the Middle East to Europe to Asia) for other architects, who have just as great ideas but unfortunately lack the visibility.

As a media outlet, Middle East Architect is working to shed more light on the industry as a whole. Change isn’t only in our hands, though. I think it’s time those involved in the industry, from the firms themselves to clients and developers, try to collaborate with someone new, and appreciate the work of those who aren’t in the headlines every week.

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