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"Excess" Versus "Relevance" Is an Irrelevant Debate

05/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is a generation of young architects and critics that is righteously indignant at the "architecture of excess" (by this they mean the sculptural buildings built over the last 10-15 years by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and fellow "starchitects"). This group is thrilled that the economic crash has seemingly brought this era to a standstill, paving the way for a glorious new age of architecture that serves humanity. Cameron Sinclair's essay in Huffpost encapsulates this view. But this reductive and ahistorical view implies the two are mutually exclusive, when there is more than enough room for architecture that inspires awe and wonder, yes, with its excess, and for architecture that modestly serves human needs.

Without an architecture of excess, we wouldn't have Versailles, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, Bilbao, and many other monuments to mankind's capacity for egomaniacal yet wondrous feats of imagination. Without the concomitant human capacity to use architecture to better serve humanity, we would not have had the arts and crafts and garden city movements, the Bauhaus, decades of efforts by enlightened architects to provide housing solutions for the poor, and, today, Sinclair's Architecture for Humanity.

Sinclair claims that until the recent crash, the "voice of the architecture profession has mainly been drowned out by computer generated sky-piercing towers of luxury." In fact, his efforts and that of his fellow humanitarians have grown in tandem with the "computer-generated" experiments of the last decade, and he has become a "starchitect for humanity," every bit as sought out for public attention by the media and schools and museum curators as the zany artist-builders he abhors. Furthermore, it is precisely this same tool -- the computer -- that has permitted him to harness 40,000 architects worldwide and to develop innovative refugee housing designs, while it has permitted architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid to push the boundaries of built form to extraordinary (if at times impractical and, to some eyes, absurd) limits.

Lastly, his viewpoint implies that on one side exist self-serving, arrogant architects and on the other, humble, well-intentioned ones. That picture precludes the fact that while building a Bilbao on the one hand, Gehry has given his time to design projects that serve humanity like his modest but life-affirming Maggie's Cancer Center in Dundee, Scotland; or that Rem Koolhaas may design excessive buildings for "ethically dubious" clients (like the CCTV building in Beijing) but his ongoing urban studies have, in their own way, drawn attention to the squalor experienced by millions worldwide that inspires Sinclair's efforts. And there is likely many a "humanitarian" architect who would want to design an "excessive" personal statement, if given the chance.

By setting up an "excess" versus "relevance" dichotomy, Sinclair and others have created an irrelevant conflict that ignores the full scope of architecture and its role as built manifestation of all our human tendencies.