It wasn't long ago (but before she shaved her head, I think) that Britney Spears had those "scandalous" photos taken of her night on the town with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. I had a chance to see a video of the scene: three young women walking down the sidewalk, inside a moving oval of about 50 photographers firing their 4-frames-per-second cameras with the electronic flash units blazing away, all shouting "Lindsay!! Look up!! Paris, look over here!!!"
What a way to live. Nobody cares about you as a person; you just exist as an object to be photographed and discussed over donuts in every office in North America. And you'd pretty much have to drive the Mercedes SLR McLaren and have five thousand pairs of shoes; you can't afford to be photographed getting into a 2005 Accord wearing your beat-up Chuck Taylors. Geez, I'd drink, too...
I sat down this evening with the acknowledged masterwork of architectural history, Spiro Kostof's A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (Oxford University Press, 1985). Kostof was almost certainly the most humanistic of the great architectural historians, spending more analytical time on cultural narratives than most of his peers, hence the subtitle of the book). I wanted to see what buildings he discussed in the Modern and PoMo eras (admittedly, a book from 1985 won't deal much with Gehry or Holl or Hadid or Calatrava). It turns out that there are 68 photographs of buildings created since 1900 that are not intended to be direct historical throwbacks (Edwin Lutyens and Frank Lloyd Wright were contemporaries, but you'd never guess it by their intentions).
So here's my little geek moment about those 68 buildings. In each case, imagine the buildings that would be added to those categories if we did a 2008 update covering the past 25 years.
The largest number of buildings photographed were a three-way tie between skyline towers, museums & theaters, and civic buildings. None of these are programmatically driven buildings; they're exercises in branding, the "look at me" function we get so tired of in our celebrities. The additions would be no end of newer skyline towers, some from Dubai and Kuala Lumpur; and lots of museums and civic centers.
Industrial and mass-housing buildings are next on the list, mainly shown because they're unique to the 20th century and also because they have intellectual connections with modern processes of efficiency and economies of scale; they tell a story about cultural change. We quit seeing them pretty much around 1935 or so, once their novelty goes away.
Religious and commemorative buildings come next. Again, these aren't so much programmatic buildings as they are places to change your mindset toward contemplation. Their whole purpose is to be entirely different than what's outside, because they're asking you to shed the outside world and get in touch with god.
The two full-time residences are far outshadowed by the seven vacation homes. You can get away with a lot in a vacation home.
The three academic buildings are all schools of architecture. You can get away with an AWFUL lot in a school of architecture.
There are four "installations" that have no function intended whatsoever (for instance, the Barcelona Pavillion). You can get away with ANYTHING in an installation; look at the Diller Scofidio + Renfro Blur building, made of sprayed water vapor except for the parts that actually have to accomplish something — the nozzle system and what you're standing on. Try making the floor out of water vapor.
By the way, when did "+" start to emerge in architecture firm names? I'm tired of that; it's very '90s and used up, like calling some function an "e-function" just because you used a computer.
You can easily add your own more recent list of museums, campus buildings, vacation homes, skyline towers, installations, and any number of other buildings (or "buildings") that have no responsibilities. I think of them as indolent buildings, lounging around wearing their price tags on every surface, existing only to be photographed. I wonder if they're bored. Maybe they take Xanax or long rehab weekends.
(I'm imagining the Stata Center and Bilbao holding each other around the shoulders as they stagger down the sidewalk, singing "They tried to make me go to rehab. I said no, no, no.")
I don't know why we teach from them. Like Paris and Lindsay, they're not exactly role models; more nearly cautionary tales.