“King Kongs” of Architecture?


Despite the clunky moniker, we read with interest as The Independent UK rattled off the seven — count ’em, seven — relevant starchitects in the world, contrasting them with commercial building firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. SOM is a workhorse firm (established in 1936) that has put up major projects from Dubai to Beijing including five of the ten tallest buildings in the world — in other words, America’s first “super practice.” What SOM hasn’t hammered down is the je ne sais quoi of its flashier architectural contemporaries. A primer on the heavy hitters after the jump.

Let’s break down the following assertion:

And who are the real King Kongs of architecture in 2010? The list is surprisingly short: Norman Foster heads it, standing imperiously aloof from Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, and Rem Koolhaas. Their buildings have “signature” design qualities. Foster, peerless hi-tech; Piano, elegantly refined frames; Rogers, vividly articulated structure; Hadid, sculptural abstraction; Herzog and de Meuron, virtuosity of detail; Koolhaas, edgy forms that are simultaneously utopian and dystopian.

To that, we’ll add Gehry and his cartoonishly turbulent exterior shells. Also, a fun fact: all seven of the noted architects have received the illustrious Pritzker Prize (Gehry in 1989, Piano in 1998, Foster in 1999, Koolhaas in 2000,Herzog & de Meuron in 2001, Hadid in 2004, Rogers in 2007). Which begs the question: what do blue-chip architects like Jean Nouvel, Thom Mayne, and I.M. Pei have to do to earn the nickname of King Kong?

Sir Norman Foster:His forms are always driven by an internal structural logic, and they treat their surroundings with a refreshing bluntness“; “The world’s most famous and most productive architect. A giant.Work samples: New York Public Library renovation, the green headquarters for Hearst Publishing, the upcoming Bowery space for Sperone Westwater gallery, London’s Canary Wharf underground station, a glass dome for the Reichstag in Berlin.

Richard Rogers: “One of the most influential British architects of our time”; “High tech iconoclast.” Work samples: The Pompidou in Paris (co-designed with fellow Kong Renzo Piano), Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, Lloyd’s of London, Stirling Prize-winning cancer center outside in London, Javits Convention Center.

Zaha Hadid: One of architecture’s most original and powerful voices“; “Policemen could cite her buildings for speeding“; “Architecture’s diva, the most precocious talent in her profession.” Work samples: MAXXI outside of Rome, Abu Dhabi Cultural Center, jelly ankle boot, Chanel space po, Leipzig BMW plant.

Renzo Piano:The nature of his designs — sophisticated but not too threatening or unfamiliar — seem tailored to ease the insecurities of museum boards“; “Rejecting monumentality, Piano expresses a preference for an airy, lightweight architecture.” Work samples: Parco della Musica in Rome, Potsdamer Platz masterplan for Berlin, Centre Pompidou competition design with Richard Rogers, Morgan Library addition, Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, New York Times building.

Frank Gehry:His work has become “logotecture,” a kind of high-priced, globalized architectural branding project“; “One-trick pony“; “[In his mind] architectural purity comes perilously close to oppression.” Work samples: Lou Ruvo Center for brain health, Disney Concert Hall in LA, Pritzker concert pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park, IAC Headquarters in Manhattan, Guggenheim Bilbao, Laughing House in Spain.

Herzog & de Meuron:Stable qualities that have always been associated with the best Swiss architecture“; “More than half a dozen art museums, each one a provocative reworking of the conventional formula.” Work samples: Tate Modern, Chinese National Stadium in Beijing, Walker Art Center, Allianz Arena in Munich, the upcoming Miami Art Museum.

Rem Koolhaas: The toughest kid on the block… [He] isn’t interested in signature architecture, in making things look pretty, or in hiding from the realities of contemporary life by treating architecture as a craft skill.” Work samples: Prada stores, the now-defunct Las Vegas branch of the Guggenheim, CCTV Headquarters in Beijing.

Bonus link: Read the fascinating history behind Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at The Independent UK .