5 February 2011

Review: The Global Architect - Firms, Fame and Urban Form

The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form by Donald McNeill, Associate Professor at the Urban Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, Australia, provides a fascinating insight into the effects of globalization on both architecture and the built environment. Described as a "critical sociological overview of the current global architectural industry" McNeill, in a thoroughly researched and well-referenced book, explores a period of architecture and city development in a post-Bilbao world when the culture of the spectacle was fully embraced by local governments, big business and architectural firms. The contingent nature of the architectural profession is exposed through a series of case studies from both household names and corporate giants, exploring interrelated issues of aesthetics, technology, culture, economics and politics. Whilst the growth in 'Global Modernism' has been well documented in recent years McNeill is able to provide new perspectives on these issues and begins to challenge the ethical standpoint of the profession and their involvement with the sometimes hidden aspects of the design process.

The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form (Routledge, 2009)

The book opens by observing that the mobility of architecture and the architectural star system is not a new condition, accounting how Louis XIV invited Bernini to Paris to work on the Louvre in 1665. McNeill though is quick to point out that "the territorial boundaries that had kept most architects tied to a small set of national markets no longer make much sense for design firms capable of operating in the dynamic economies of the Gulf and China." So whilst the majority of architectural practices still rely substantially on work in domestic or regional markets there has been a proliferation in firms working globally on a more regular basis. The key causes for this are reasoned as the hyper-mobility of "advanced business services" (which architecture is often described as), a desire by larger firms to diversify workloads to cope with recessions in domestic markets and "corresponding growth strategies of transnational corporations" - with those corporations bringing their favoured design companies into new markets with them.

An analysis in Chapter One, "The globalisation of architectural practice", compares different models of architectural practice - the "globally operative megapractice" (Skidmore, Owings, Merrill), "the architectural firm as global brand" (Aedas), "the Foster model" (Foster + Partners) and boutique-firms. Commenting on the trend towards mergers and amalgamations of practices into even larger firms, McNeill sees the future of the 'boutique' practice as assured "assuming they are able to offer something distinctive within a crowded market" and as such the continuation of the distinction between 'executive' and 'design' practices.

Chapter Two, "Designing at distance", deals with the issues surrounding architectural projects designed hundreds or possibly thousands of miles away from the project site. Key to this are technological innovations that have "transformed the architectural design process" and the increasing popularity of outsourcing, a key feature of the 'new' economy, where "low-wage but skilled labour" deals with "routine parts of the production process." In this new cycle of 24 hour working a confidence in new technology, for rapid information transfer, means that 'design-led' firms no longer need to open outpost-offices where projects are being undertaken and smaller firms can take on much larger projects (as 'design' architects). Drawing on the work of William Mitchell in Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Network City McNeill describes how "the individual architect is thus involved in a network of relations facilitated by a mix of face-to-face meetings and socialising, telephone conversations, video and web conferencing, emails and projects intranets." These face-to-face encounters are still key to facilitating the design process, meaning that the 'design-team' can never be completely autonomous from the site.

"The cult of the individual" and "The 'Bilbao effect'" are covered by Chapter's Three and Four respectively with both tackling the desire of governments and businesses to seek out a signature architect to design an iconic building - and for architects to be sought out to act as agents in this process. Architecture is "not like painting or sculpture or even film-making, given the incredible complexity of the design process" however architects are now required to develop "public narratives" (be it dress sense or PR campaigns) within their professional lives to sell schemes to potential clients and the public. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and it's subsequent role in 'regenerating' the city has been well documented yet McNeill is able to draw out a "a hidden side of the Bilbao effect" that moves passed the pure spectacle of the architectural form and analyses other "serendipitous" contingent forces that led to the success of the project.

The career of Rem Koolhaas is examined in Chapter Six, "Rem Koolhaas and global capitalism", and how he has revelled in "redefining the role of the architect in all the social and technological messiness of the contemporary world economy." Key to this has been the self-examination by Koolhaas and his practice, OMA, that has led to him to blurring the boundaries of what exactly an architect does; by subverting "the architect as autonomous professional" and embracing "the power of the client in determining the process." McNeill is quick to point out that "accepting that the client's goals and budget define the architectural response is not new" but the pragmatic approach championed by Koolhaas through volume's such as S,M,L,XL and Content, with a hint of irony at times, has influenced a generation of architectural students.

Undoubtedly the skyscraper is an "icon of Modernity" and any text examining the globalised architectural profession would be incomplete without acknowledging it's part in the story. Chapter Six, "The geography of the skyscraper", deals with the relationship between the exportation of "an American hegemony in world politics and culture" and the rise of the skyscraper as a "monument to national state prestige" in the post-colonial world. This chapter also deals with issues of cultural identity; McNeill becomes increasingly critical of the 'one size fits all' mentality and the proliferation of gestural motifs, within 'Global Modernism', to represent specific cultural identities - "The assumption that there is a unified, essentialised ... national identity fails to recognise that nations are social constructions, built up over decades and centuries of conscious myth-making."

Donald McNeill uses the CCTV Headquarters, Beijing, China,
by OMA, to highlight the ethical dilemmas architects face
(Image from OMA website copyright of Iwan Baan)

With a growing degree of criticality McNeill's attention turns in the final chapter to "The ethics of architectural practice". There are an array of 'ethically challenging' scenarios that architect's find themselves working within, either specific building typologies, "dubious regimes or clients" or issues of 'sustainability' and McNeill views these areas as being "increasingly problematic." One of the key case studies highlighted in this chapter is the recently completed Headquarters for China's state television station (CCTV) which brings into question the importance of politics in contemporary architectural discussions. There seems to be little interest in architectural ethics which McNeill partly puts down to architecture's self-referential nature and the split between architecture as 'art' and/or 'profession'. Ultimately though, for McNeill, the mentality of 'if we didn't design it, someone else would' "only serves to highlight a worrying abdication of ethical responsibility by some of the world's leading design firms."

To conclude then, The Global Architect deals with a vast array of issues as it traces the history and consequences of globalisation in the built environment industry. Whilst the issues here are covered in numerous other texts - as highlighted by the number of sources cited - the book forms part of a growing critique of the output of the architectural (and construction) profession in the recent years. McNeill is able to bring together a variety of different stories, with a vast array of actors (despite the pool of global starchitects being admittedly limited) into a coherent account that offers new insights into the contingent forces at play in shaping the urban environment.


McNeilll, D. (2009), The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form, 1st Edition, New York: Routledge