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What Does It Take for an Architect to Disown a Project?

Given the inordinate amount of time and energy that architects pour into their work, they typically take great pride in the finished product. When it comes to professional commitment and devotion to the architectural cause, the phrase “labor of love” couldn’t be more fitting — for the most part. However, every so often, an architect ends up in the less-than-ideal position of having no recourse but to turn his or her back on a project, invariably bringing more attention to the situation.

A particularly spiky instance of dissent occurred earlier this month in Paris, when French architect Jean Nouvel spoke publicly of his dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy hampering the construction of the city’s new Philharmonie concert hall.

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The Philharmonie, Paris. Via The Guardian

The designer of the landmark complex filed a court order to have his name and image completely disassociated from the project, complaining that the building remains unfinished and “non-compliant” with his original design. In an editorial in Le Monde, Nouvel broadly decried the behavior of both the French Minister of Culture and the Philharmonie Director, which had led him to boycott the concert hall’s opening performance:

"The contempt shown over the past two years for architecture, for the profession of the architect, and for me as the architect of the most important French cultural program of the early 21st century prohibits me from being there on opening night and thereby expressing my approval of, and satisfaction with, an architectural structure that wavers between fakery and sabotage.”

This vociferous outburst encapsulated a rare moment of public discontent from a major architect on his own commission — Nouvel was clearly pushed to the limit by what he saw as a fundamental lack of integrity and accountability on an institutional scale.

Sometimes though, abandonment of one’s own project can occur for much more personal reasons — indeed, not even the most esteemed architects are immune from tumultuous relationships with their clients, and Frank O. Gehry knows this better than anyone. The renowned Canadian-American architect was commissioned by famous businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad to design him a huge contemporary mansion in the hills of Brentwood, Calif.

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Eli Broad's Mega-Mansion. Via Virtual Globetrotting

Soon though, the relationship between these two hot-blooded characters became strained. According to CBS News, Broad’s tendency to micro-manage riled Gehry, and the pair consistently rubbed each other up the wrong way, until the alliance reached breaking point: Broad fired his architect, but continued on with the project and built the house using Gehry’s drawings.

When asked for his account of the fiasco, Gehry was brutally honest: “Eli is a control freak. I worked on a house for him. I didn’t wanna do it.” Asked why, Gehry said, “I just told him I didn’t like him.” Ouch. To this day, Gehry refuses to take credit for the sprawling mansion, despite the cascade of snow-white walls and titanium waves bearing all the hallmarks of the architect’s signature style.

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Disney Concert Hall, LA. Via Wikipedia

Relations did not improve when the two men reunited three years later, attempting to collaborate on another project with a much higher profile, the Disney Concert Hall in Gehry’s home city, Los Angeles. Midway through the design process, Broad — the lead fundraiser for the project — fired Gehry again, and the architect was only reinstated on the insistence of the Disney family.

It goes to show that a strained personal relationship, even with just one, influential figure, can endanger the most iconic of commissions. Sometimes though, the reasons for fallout are of deeper societal significance: Enter Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei.

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Bird's Nest Stadium, Beijing. Via Wikipedia

Ai collaborated as the artistic consultant on Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, regarded by many as a seminal example of sports architecture. However, the activist soon regretted his involvement in the project, fearing he had unwittingly contributed to a huge exercise in propaganda by Chinese government officials. In an interview with Yomiuri Shibun (notably, a Japanese newspaper) he expressed his discontent:

"The Beijing Olympics have oppressed the life of the general public with the latest technologies and a security apparatus of 700,000 guards…It was merely a stage for a political party to advertise its glory to the world. I became disenchanted because I realized I was used by the government to spread their patriotic education. Since the Olympics, I haven't looked at the stadium."

While Ai was not the lead architect on the project, his characteristically strident airing of his misgivings bore certain parallels with that of Nouvel in Paris, taking full advantage his prominence in the public eye to make a wider point about political institutions that cast shadows on the Profession. For both Ai and Nouvel, disowning their work appears to have been born out of genuine frustration at perceived injustices, and the belief that their continued association with the architecture would amount to the condoning of their clients’ actions.

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Via Wallpaper

However, it is important to note that this frustration was coupled with an undercurrent of defiance: Both artist and architect knew that their reputation was robust enough to withstand such a debacle, and in the midst of the fallout, they could rely on one certainty… they knew people would perk up and would listen.

In The Fountainhead, when Howard Roark believes that his architectural vision has been sabotaged, he dynamites his own building. Of course, such actions would be deplorable in reality — instead, some architects use verbal explosives to ensure their principles are upheld.

Nouvel wasn’t the first to use such weaponry — and he certainly won’t be the last.

Yours hot-bloodedly,

The Angry Architect