Marketing with "Starchitects"

Architects are trained to copy. While architecture schools talk about creativity, students, by and large, only have license to be creative within the stylistic vocabulary approved by the academy. The same remains true in professional practice - only a very few "starchitects" have the clout to open up a developer's purse to create a new look. Then, through publication, other architects can follow the lead.

Building product marketeers who understand this dynamic can often take advantage of it to stimulate demand for their products. The following case studies cite a few dramatic examples.

Case Study #1 - Reflective Glass and Philip Johnson
Johnson towered over American corporate architecture during the second half of the 20th Century. When PPG Industries hired him to design their headquarters in Pittsburgh (completed 1984), Johnson created a stunning, all-glass facade using his client's new reflective glass (photo above). PPG advertised the project heavily, making sure the project was associated with Johnson's name. Not only did the large project inspire other architects to use reflective glass curtainwalls, it made it "safe" for them to do so since it gave them someone they could "creatively copy." From PPG's standpoint, the fee they paid their starchitect paid dividends by stimulating demand for their product.

Case Study #2 - Sheet Metal Facades and Frank Gehry
Gehry's rippling sheet metal facades are the defining architectural form of the past decade. Inspired by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and his other signature projects, architects around the world have "creatively copied" the master by using sheet metal for architectural expressions that transcend the material's former reputation as a utilitarian cladding.

I trace the start of this trend to an exhibition on "Sheet Metal Craftsmanship" in 1988 at the National Building Museum. The exhibit was sponsored by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA), an industry trade promotion council. (Photo from a 3D Viewmaster slide show of project.)

Gehry was a logical choice for the project as he was already known for innovative use of exposed metal; most famously his own residence in Santa Monica, CA that had a facade composed of corrugated steel and chain link fencing creating unusual geometric volumes. But I contend that this exhibition changed his understanding of how to work with sheet metal and lead directly to his more recent structures draped in shimmering, custom-crafted stainless steel and titanium.

I recently had a chance to ask Gehry about the exhibition. He explained that SMACNA had little money for a fee. (This alone may not have deterred him from accepting the fee, as many architects do pro bono work that will give them increased visibility or position them for larger projects.) Gehry says he accepted the project on condition, telling the sheet metal workers that "you and I have to be brothers from now on. Family. I'll give you this design, but you'll have to stand by me wherever I go, helping me do the things I want to do with metal. And they have. at Bilbao, at Disney [concert hall in Los Angeles], the sheet metal industry has stood with me and made it possible to do the things I have."

I remember visiting the exhibition. Inside the vast central hall of Museum he installed monumental scale sheet metal structures. In addition to housing educational displays about the history, materials, and techniques of metal mongery, the structures themselves shouted - "take a fresh look at sheet metal." They contained all the curves, all the careful attention to detailing, and the explorations of metal finishes and "materiality" that are now part of Gehry's oeuvre. The exhibition was his laboratory where, with the support of his "brothers," he could push the envelope of metal design.

The sheet metal workers could have employed a more conventional exhibition designer. But they carefully chose a starchitect. Gehry's participaton not only drew more people and publicity to the exhibit, it planted seedlings that have continued to sprout for the industry.