Global architectural practice is confronted by us students nearly everyday, hearing of a competition in China won by Norman Foster or a new rail terminal in Lille by OMA.  Our fascination with the culture of a starchitect is often blinding; our ability to obtain their status nearly physically and theoretical beyond reach.  Yet starchitects, like the astronomical stars they take their name from, follow trajectories and patterns that can be mapped and understood.  Global architecture, as we have seen it develop within the past one hundred years, is a new type of architecture of aesthetic exploration yet grounded in the capitalistic global economy.  The surface appearance of architecture should not be confused as its substance; its substance is derived from a complex interweaving of politics, economics, and team collaboration.

We have seen the architecture by the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Morphosis, among others, in nearly ever ‘global’ city.  These architectural icons have become almost a necessary preclusion to a city’s acceptance as “global.”  These architectures, in all their senses, share a kind of lineage with the architectural products made before them.  Never are they identical clones, but a kind of transformation, or evolution, from those projects that came before.   Donald McNeil, Associate Professor at the Urban Research Centre claims global architects “search for a unified, consumable style as balanced with an innovative, unpredictable ‘signature’”  (McNeill 5).  This signature becomes part of the brand.  And the brand thus participates in the economic power of a given country or city.

Buildings are the basics of the brand, and like any consumable product, aim to perform more than their utilitarian function.  Coca Cola, while not a building, aims to provide a product – soda – but infuse it with meaning — freestyle or live positivley.  These buildings, however, become icons of the complex symbols of wealth, power, progress, and the cultural avant-garde.  Their value, often immeasurable, exceeds the dollar figure to design and construct them;  “economically, our buildings operate as investments into a marketing agenda,” a marketing agenda aiming to establish a city among an elite global echelon (19).

There are a number of reasons starchitects choose to design globally.  The first would be the kind of exhilaration of the unknown.  Architect’s have always loved the city, and each new city provides new opportunities, a new stage by which the world can watch, as a new spectacular is created.  The second would be diversification, a reaction to the difficulty of surviving an economic downturn by a firm tied solely to a national economy.  With a wider client base, global economics provide a greater diversification, much like an investor who buys a combination of high and low cap stocks.  Global architecture as much an architect’s ideal as a reaction to economic activity.

Success on the global stage is driven by well developed means and methods of architectural production.  The first strategy is commercial subsidization.  Firm’s offset the high costs of competition entries by partaking in steady commercial work that gives greater financial freedom to engage in international competitions.  This is the case with inFORM’s relationship with Verizon and its subsequent Egyptian museum competition entry.  For firms, there are high opportunity costs for entering into design competitions and those chosen to be pursued are strategic and well considered.   What we also see, that is interesting, is a partnership between architecture firms and developers, such as HOK’s European Network 15 or Kahn, Pederson, Fox’s relationship with Olympia & York.  Developers often use architects to pre-sell their products to the public, making for a safer investment.  What students may deem as high-design performs the double function of securing economic investments, and thus aesthetics and economics work collaboratively towards the production of architecture.

There is a “contrast that exists in the study of architecture between autonomous viewpoints – which dominates architecture as a profession and discipline – and a heterogeneous reading, where firms react to market forces” (McNeil 32).  This illustrates the often conflicting nature of architectural theory, in which pursuing the agenda of art or high design cannot go hand in hand with acknowledgement of market forces.  This, however, as we all should know, is a utopian version of architectural practice.

McNeill, Donald. The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

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