IS THE NEW ARCHITECTURAL century still stuck in the end of the last one? Yes, but not for long. Asked to take stock of their discipline, architects largely agree that one era is winding down and another is beginning.
Starchitecture—which has given the world more than 15 years of autographed, iconic and would-be iconic buildings—is ending, says Matthias Sauerbruch. The German architect started his career at Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and went on to found Sauerbruch Hutton in 1989 with his wife, British architect Louisa Hutton.
“The time of the grand sculptural building is over,” says Mr. Sauerbruch, looking back on what he calls architecture’s “Mannerist period,” symbolized by figures such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. It’s appropriate that its most recent addition is Mr. Gehry’s billowing Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, as it was another Gehry building—the sinuous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao—that helped usher in the era in the mid-1990s.
But while the world may ooh and ahh at the new Louis Vuitton Foundation, elsewhere in Europe, other eye-catching cultural buildings also commissioned before the economic crises that started in 2008 are languishing. The City of Culture of Galicia complex—a wonderfully adventurous project in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, with a design team led by American architect Peter Eisenman —was put on hold in mid-construction in 2011. The computer-generated plans, featuring undulating buildings, are thrilling to look at—but the reality more closely resembles the abandoned ghost estates that blight Europe’s edges.
For many architects, the word “iconic” now suggests a cynical branding exercise, in which developers and tourist boards attract foreign visitors by citing a famous architect’s name on the side of a conspicuous building. But the word can be redefined, says Pedro Gadanho, the Portuguese architect and curator of contemporary architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He cites the Giancarlo Mazzanti-designed Biblioteca España complex in Medellín, Colombia. The city may attract some tourists with the project, made of three massive asymmetrical structures and completed in 2007, but its main achievement is giving a poor neighborhood “deprived of every resource” an ability “to relate to something through architecture,” says Mr. Gadanho.