This is a healthy sign, for there is no doubt that over the past decade the "star system", or Howard Roarke syndrome, in the world of architecture and design has been getting out of hand. Roarke, by the way, was the megalomaniac architect star of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, played by Gary Cooper in the baroque film of the book. Successful architects have become Hello! magazine and Vogue celebrities, while gewgaws from the pen of a feted designer like Philippe Starck are applauded even when they are fatuous and downright silly. Why? Because the man is a star. The same diverting lemon squeezers and desk lamps by a team of anonymous designers from Doncaster or Newcastle under Lyme would be dismissed as trivia.
Earlier this year, a team of star-struck young designers showed me a voluminous and ugly motorbike styled by Starck (I have nothing against Starck, by the way - he is immensely clever, and the hotel lobbies he designs are stylish and fun). They raved about its ingenuity. In fact, aside from its zooty looks, there was nothing special about it at all, and certainly, if you have ridden a modern Triumph or Ducati (whose brilliant engineer-designers few owners can name), you will not be impressed.
Yet, even if many of the best buildings and designs are created by teams or by men and women who work quietly, we seem to have developed a need for stars. Or is it simply that we like to put a name to a building, lemon squeezer or motorbike? There is something definite and reassuring about the idea that one man or one woman designed this church or that locomotive. When I was a little boy, my Ian Allan Locospotters guides told me that Sir William A Stanier FRS designed the LMS Coronation Pacifics I so admired and that Sir Nigel Gresley designed the Flying Scotsman and Mallard. As I got to read grown-up books on railway and engineering history, I learnt that my beloved Coronations were the work of a team of people whose names have never been celebrated even though the machines they produced were magnificent. I also learnt that Sir William's role in their design was much less hands-on than I had imagined. Today, the most ardent railway enthusiast would be hard-pressed to name the designers of contemporary diesel and electric locomotives. Who designed the 300kph Eurostar? Who, for that matter, designed Concorde? How many designers has it taken to realise the new Jaguar XK8?
Given the complexity of modern buildings, we can hardly expect them to be the work of a solitary genius. Today when we say this building was designed by Sir Norman Foster, that one by Renzo Piano, we are really talking of teams that go by those names. "Foster" and "Piano" are as much trademarks as living, breathing, designing individuals.
Architects themselves have long been educated to believe that they are stars: a lonely architect working from home and designing a kitchen extension in a cul-de-sac in Tadcaster can believe himself to be Howard Roarke or even Le Corbusier. Architects in earlier ages were able to put more of themselves into individual buildings not only because these were less complex creations than they are today, but because architects were at the apex of a well-established hierarchy of pupils, Gradgrinds, builders and craftsmen capable of designing and building in the style of their master and often with only imcomplete and impressionistic sketches to work from. Today, architects are educated professionals, each a Le Corbusier in the making, many dreaming of running their own practices, few wanting to remain working quietly, if contentedly, in the kind of complex creative team that produces cars and locomotives, airliners and bridges.
The star system has a long way to go before it falls. The last words should go to Louis Hellman, the architect-cartoonist who wrote this spot- on clerihew:
"An architect went up to Heaven and said
Isn't that Corb I see over there?
No, said St Peter, that's God,
He just thinks he's Le Corbusier"Reuse content