All the President’s Architects: In Search of Today’s Great Buildings


“Forget the myths the media’s created… The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” So says Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) to Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) in All the President’s Men, a movie widely regarded as the best political picture of the last thirty some-odd years. It is also, however unintentionally, the finest film about architecture ever made. All those half-lit interiors, those labyrinths! those car parks and corridors and elevators! Oh, the Brutalism!

Director Alan Pakula’s 1976 minor-key masterpiece is a veritable primer for the layperson on late modern architecture, but there’s a valuable lesson in it too for today’s post-post-(post-?)modern architects and the critics who adore and abhor them. If we want to know where to find significant buildings of the ‘00s — or if there aren’t any, why not — we could hardly do better than to listen to Deep Throat. (Only to the pseudonym. Mark Felt sounds like the name of a paid spokesman for prostate medication.)

“Follow the money.” The recent belly-flop of the national economy has left a lot of designers, to say nothing of developers, all wet. In New York, as detailed in a recent Justin Davidson piece in New York Magazine, the legacy of the last eight years is a glut of buildings varying in quality from groovy to ghastly, even the best of which suddenly seems startlingly out of place, deprived of its intended context — the happy-clappy Fun City of spa-going fashion-plates and single-malt bachelors who populated the digital renderings of Bernard Tschumi’s Blue Condo and David Rockwell’s Trump SoHo.

The late global economy sparked similar building boomlets from South Africa to Lebanon, and everywhere it brought the good, the bad, and the indifferent: (not necessarily in that order:) the Sendai Mediatheque from Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building in Beijing, Barcelona’s Torre Agbar by Jean Nouvel. But while juries can’t be expected to return a final verdict at least until these buildings have aged another decade, there is a feeling abroad as well as at home that starchitects, and their immediate progeny, have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

“You’re missing the overall…” It’s not that so many buildings of our only-just-begun century are ugly — a lot of them are beautiful — or that the architects who built them are bad — most of them aren’t. But by putting a lot of zip and sensationalism into individual projects, too many designers lost a sense of the grander urban scheme. Now their pretty glass bijoux are marooned, stuck in cities with insufficient and inefficient infrastructure, too few practical housing units and too many jumbo condo clunkers.

Architects didn’t do it alone. They had the intellectual backing of a “post-theoretical” faction in academia giving them full license to jump into the current of contemporary culture without any of the heavy-headed philosophizing that was the hallmark of the profession in the ’90s. The result was a number of stunning formal innovations, a lot of dreck, and a vast conspiracy of un-critical thinking that affected critics and designers alike.

“… and things got out of hand.” The cover-up was facilitated by gobs of easy money and an atmosphere of architectural boosterism. (J’accuse spectacle-loving Bruce Mau! J’accuse architecture-can-fix-everything editors of Metropolis!) We needn’t, however, write down the whole 21st century thus far as a loss. If we can wed the technical accomplishments and aesthetic adventurism of the best boom-era architecture (viz. Rem’s Seattle Public Library) with a more progressive urban vision (lookin’ at you, Matter Architecture Practice, Interboro Partners, inter alia) we might make it out of this thing yet. We have to. There’s a lot more at stake here than just building canonical buildings.

“Take out your notebook. Your lives are in danger…”

– Ian Volner