American tennis star Andre Agassi famously claimed, "image is everything." Actress Jennifer Lopez sells music, clothing and perfume bearing her name. Until recently, golfer Tiger Woods' trademark smile was used to sell everything from cars to soft drinks. The pervasive nature of today's mass media has created an explosion of celebrity culture in society.
Image-based celebrity branding has infiltrated even the traditional world of architecture, where media savvy 'starchitects' and their signature styles have become commodities to be purchased like the latest fashions off the runways of Milan. Cities around the globe clamour to have the latest works of the hottest 'it' designer. Having one of their buildings in your skyline is seen as the equivalent of having an Armani suit in your closet. Like casting Brad Pitt to star in your movie, building owners often hire 'starchitects' to ensure a level of prestige for their projects. While this phenomenon has traditionally been the playground of global cities such as New York and Toronto, three current Winnipeg projects indicate it may have found its way to our humble city.
The new Richardson International Airport terminal was designed by one of the most high-profile architects to ever work in Winnipeg. Argentine César Pelli is most famous for creating the striking Petronas Towers in Malaysia. Once the tallest buildings in the world, they starred prominently alongside Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Hollywood movie Entrapment.
The dramatic design of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, under construction at The Forks, is by celebrated American architect Antoine Predock, who received the commission after winning a design competition that included nearly every 'starchitect' in the world.
While perhaps not making guest appearances on The Simpsons like Frank Gehry, Bruce Kuwabara of the Toronto firm KPMB is becoming the Canadian version of a 'starchitect', thanks in part to his work on the Manitoba Hydro Building. The gleaming new tower has quickly garnered global attention for its ground-breaking sustainable building technologies, winning several international awards, even hailed by the Toronto Star as "Canada's most important building."
With these projects as evidence, it appears even in Winnipeg, seemingly removed from the trappings of civic one-upmanship, large civic building designs are less often being awarded to local architects. The original airport terminal, designed by a Winnipeg firm, was widely admired as one of the finest in Canada. One might ask, what has changed that requires an imported designer for that same building today?
What does the practice of engaging international 'starchitects' mean for the local architectural community? What legacy will these buildings leave after their designers have gone home?
As ever-evolving technologies push the envelope of design, the profession of architecture has become increasingly specialized. Globally focused architects can inject new expertise and perspective to our design community that may not have previously existed.
The exposure that a 'starchitect' brings in mainstream media can elevate the public awareness of architecture, instilling civic pride and promoting the importance of good design in our built environment. This heightened interest in architecture can open up possibilities for local designers as developers and building owners are inspired by elevated design quality, demanding it for their own projects.
Brand-name architects will bring outside publicity to our community, potentially allowing Winnipeg to distinguish itself as a place of creative architecture, which could result in increased exposure and opportunity for projects designed by Winnipeg architects.
Do the benefits of importing 'starchitect' designers outweigh the lost opportunity for local architects? The answer may be yes, if we can capitalize on this unprecedented injection of creative thinking in our design community. We might look back on these three projects and consider them a turning point that spawned a pervasive culture of good design in our city, raising the bar of public awareness and expectation for modern architecture in Winnipeg.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Contact him at Bbellamy@numberten.com.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2010 B4