The Role of the Architect
Let’s tackle the difficult question: what do we think about Frank Gehry doing this project in our neighborhood? Our typical answer: Gehry is known to be a great architect, but there are real problems with this project. It’s too big, it’s too dense, the crowds will be unmanageable, people driving will take our spaces first, traffic is going to be even worse, the megablocks will detract from our streets, not enough public space, and it’s all private not public, why can’t we have a great pedestrian environment? We understand that the density is driven by the arena – the arena loses money so the real estate has to make it back. (Where’s a big media company when we need it?) Marty Markowitz wanted the team, and the deal made sense to the developers if they could make their profit on the real estate. How to sell it? Let’s get Frank! So here we are.
How much responsibility does the architect bear for the problems? Has Gehry’s predilection for hard street fronts determined the closing of streets? What can we say about his association with a plan that everyone knows is far too dense for the site?
Let’s start by acknowledging that an architect’s mission is different from that of a developer. People say different things about their intentions, but let’s be clear about the players’ respective roles. Architects want to make successful architecture; development teams require their projects to be profitable. And while it may be a good business plan for developers to try to gain popular approval for their projects, a good business plan is only a means to an end: the financial success of the project. In the pairing of developer and architect, let’s also keep in mind the primary relationship: the architect works for the developer, which despite the rhetoric is not a partnership. For better or worse, architects have virtually no say in the program, which includes total built area, area for different components, site limits, amount of parking, etc. These are critical items for determining the financial success of the project; in some projects an architect can weigh in, but they are always finally determined by the developer.
Given this relationship, it does help that Gehry is on the job. He will be more able to push for influencing the program and it’s disposition on the site than anyone else could in that role. From the public’s perspective there is a real advantage to having a star architect working on a project; a renowned architect has more clout to influence the program. Well-known architects can pick and choose commissions, and if a client proposes a direction that is not of interest, they can always decline to participate. Lesser known architects work at the behest of the client, knowing that satisfied clients will give them more work. A star architect plays to a different audience: his place in history. It behooves him to do the right thing, or to not do it at all.