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The Death of the Architect

February 27, 2012

In a lecture delivered at SCAD last month, Los Angeles architect Roger Sherman declared that today’s architect “too often thinks of himself as an author.” Implied in his observation is the belief that we are witnessing not the beginning of a trend but, rather, the end of an era: the era of the self-willed, autonomous, authorial architect. Could this be true? Sherman’s indictment of the author-architect seems to be indicative of much current thinking about contemporary practice. Increasingly, architecture firms are embracing collaboration, interdisciplinarity and anonymity; an “open-source” approach to architecture is gaining ground. This trend could be explained as a function of the economic downturn and the depressed building industry—recent unemployment statistics have shown architects to be among the hardest hit—but it might also be explained as a reaction against the glitzy “starchitecture” of the past couple of decades—increasingly seen as emblems of an era of excess—or, the collectivized, open-ended, non-authorial trend in architecture could be seen as a momentous cultural or ideological paradigm shift, the overthrow of our very concept of the architect.

What is an architect? Historians often answer this by turning to the fifteenth-century humanist Leon Battista Alberti, who famously defined the architect in his De re aedificatoria in this way:

Him I consider the architect, who by sure and wonderful reason and method, knows both how to devise through his own mind and energy, and to realize by construction, whatever can be most beautifully fitted out for the noble needs of man, by the movement of weights and the joining and massing of bodies. To do this he must have an understanding and knowledge of all the highest and most noble disciplines. This then is the architect.[1]

Alberti’s architect is an authoritative inventor whose education, skill and genius qualify him to “author” works of architecture. His formulation of the architect has been seen by many as the basis of our modern concept of the professional architect.[2] In his recent book, Building in Time (Yale University Press, 2010), Marvin Trachtenberg casts Alberti as the author of “author-function” in architecture, the pioneer of what he calls “modern oblivion.” For Trachtenberg, architecture before the Renaissance was a process of becoming, not the isolated creation of independent objects by self-willed individuals. According to his view, Alberti and his Renaissance followers were the inventors of a mythology which was perpetuated by their Romantic and Modernist progeny. It is this myth of the architect as a tragic hero that became an accepted account of how architecture is made and what it means. For historians like Trachtenberg and architects like Sherman, this powerful myth has held sway in defining the profession from the Quattrocento until the present; it has likewise been the ruling paradigm of architectural historiography until quite recently. It is why architectural history students are asked to identify the title, date, and name of the architect when shown a picture of building. They are being asked to validate the author. But recent trends in architectural history and in the practice of architecture reveal a growing suspicion of the authorial voice of the architect. Fewer people believe in the myth of the architect anymore. Architecture is seen today as too complex to be explained as the finished product of any single architect working in any single time. The architect is dead and buried, or so it appears to some.

What are we to make of this state of affairs? We seem to be left with only more questions: Can—or should—the architect be resuscitated? If the architect is dead, who will design our buildings? And, how can there be design without a designer? Or, from an architectural historian’s perspective, what are we to understand about the presumptively authoritative architecture of the past five-hundred years of western history (in other words the canon of architectural history that is still taught in most schools)? Will no more books be written about the work of an individual architect? Will there be no more college courses, museum exhibits, symposia, or documentaries about Andrea Palladio, Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry? Will no one mourn the loss of the architect? Or, is our lamentation premature; are rumors of the death of the architect greatly exaggerated?

David Gobel

[1] Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), 3.

[2] On the Alberti and the Renaissance invention of the profession see James Ackerman’s landmark essay, “Architectural Practice in the Italian Renaissance,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 13 (1954), 3-11 and also the Spiro Kostof’s edited collection of essays on The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1977).

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 24, 2012 7:11 pm

    Cultures survived and built many great buildings without Star Architects. I think the trend today is moving away from the notion of a Star Architect because societies and cultures aren’t built by a single person. I am no so sure its so horrible if the profession humbles itself a little. Thank you for the very interesting and thought provoking commentary.


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