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In Photos: Is The Cult Of Starchitecture Dead?

One photographer’s decade of photographing starchitecture illustrates how our perception of brand-name architecture has evolved.

A bag of greasy potato chips strewn over a cafe table, deeply out of focus. A shaggy dog waiting for its owner. A mundane potted plant or two. An iron-gray sky. No architect would want these banal artifacts of everyday life obscuring their masterwork (in this case, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, the grandaddy of starchitecture). There’s a whole industry of photographers and public relations firms that specialize in capturing new buildings in their most pure, sun-kissed, grease-and-humanity-free moments. There’s even a name for those perfect press photos: hero shots.

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But the hero shot can be pretty boring. And a little misleading. Life, as Jeff Goldblum would say, finds a way. Dirt, puppies, traffic, bad weather, and imperfect people aren’t just inevitable parts of architecture–they are the architecture.

In 2008, the architectural photographer Michele Nastasi and author and Politecnico di Milano Professor of Urban Planning Davide Ponzini began working on a book and photo essay about starchitecture and its effect on cities, which they published in 2011 under the title Starchitecture: Scenes, Actors, and Spectacles in Contemporary Urban Cities. The book featured more than 50 photos of starchitecture alongside critical essays, all published in the shadow of the financial downturn and the real estate bubble’s dramatic bursting. It questioned the notion that “starchitecture” could revitalize a city or an economy–and Nastasi’s photos provided visual evidence that no building exists in a vacuum, including the aforementioned photo of Guggenheim Bilbao, titled Chips and Puppy.

Over the past four years, the duo have been at work on a new edition, expanding the scope of the book and shooting new photos. Published at the end of December, the second Starchitecture includes more than 30 new photos of “brand-name” buildings around the world, along with updated criticism and analysis. The photos are visual evidence of how our understanding of starchitecture has evolved from the heroic to the realistic, or what Nastasi describes as “a deeper awareness that the book is not about single buildings, but about how these buildings interact with the process of transformation of cities.”

In contrast to hero shots, his photos often put starchitecture in a supporting role that fits perfectly with the book’s analysis, which considers whether star-built architecture is really as much of an urban and economic boon as it once seemed. Many of the photos are shot from the street, showing just a sliver or piece of the brand-name building, wedged in by banal neighbors, concealed by scaffolding and cabs and commuters–none of whom seem particularly awestruck. Nastasi describes these types of scenes as vedutas–a genre of painting that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries and focused on large-scale, wide-angle depictions of burgeoning European cities instead of focused portraiture or still life.

“Within these years I gradually moved from a kind of photography that derives from my professional work on architecture–which is of course very much focused on buildings–to a wider observation of the city, and of buildings in relation to cityscapes,” he tells Co.Design over email.

There’s a practical reason for this style, too. It’s getting “more difficult” to access starchitecture, Nastasi reports. “Most of the developers and companies, and sometimes the architects too, are following very straight guidelines in terms of promotion through photography, and they don’t want anybody other than their designated (and well-controlled) photographer to shoot the building,” he explains. But in a way, he likes the street-level photos more. They show “the view that normal people–citizens, users of the buildings, visitors, wanderers–see during their day.”

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The images are a reflection of the shifting perception of fame and value in architecture. Yesterday, the Pritzker Prize–an award some describe as architecture’s Oscars–went for the first time to three architects, who together run the lesser-known Spanish firm RCR Arquitectes. The way we assign value to “great” architecture–once bound up with the cult of personality and the value of individual genius–is gradually refocusing around great ideas executed by teams thinking critically about urbanism, economics, and design, not lone masterminds obsessed with formalism.

Nastasi’s photos reflect that broad cultural shift, through nuanced image-making.

[All photos: Michele Nastasi/Monacelli Press]

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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