Skip to content

The Rules of Showbiz

Post date:

I want to run with the idea, from two posts back, of showbusiness and architecture as media spectacle, and see how useful it is at explaining some phenomena we’ve come to accept as normal.

RULE 1: Strategic publicity

We don’t even notice this anymore. It’s standard. Rem Koolhaas is still master with his design and communications integrated via pre-emptive theories. Here’s a snippet recalling some hasty theorising post-2008.

I think public is better because, you know, if you work for the public sector, then you can obviously— you’re working directly or indirectly for the good of mankind and of course, it’s not always the case and there’s a lot of compromising. But in principle, you work for the good side. If you work for the private sector, you are in the service of the ambitions of others and therefore it’s a much more insecure situation and you cannot claim the same kind of certainty in a situation.

It would’ve been neater had the theory actually pre-empted the credit crunch.


Starchitect Rem Koolhaas thinks his industry is in a rut. Talking to NYMag’s Justin Davidson, Koolhaas said most bigshot architects work only for the private sector, creating buildings that are cheap rather than monumental. An exception is the work he has done for the Chinese government:

“Most of us work almost exclusively for the private sector,” he laments, referring as he usually does to himself and a few gold-plated peers. But doesn’t his most flamboyant and controversial building, the twisted-pretzel headquarters of China’s government-run TV broadcaster, contradict that generalization? “Yes, in China, even the private sector is actually the public sector,” he says. “That’s one main reason to work there: You’re dealing with something more than private ambition.”

Koolhaas’ complaint makes sense in light of the austerity age rising in the West.Architects are going to find big public sector projects in places like ChinaDubai and Kazakhstan — of course some of these may lead to big public sector debt problems.

For Remment, Singapore seems to provide the happy medium between private investment and government control.


RULE 2: The next one always has to be better


Problems occur for the showbiz architecture economy when the sequence of completion does not follow the sequence of design. That the next one has to be better is a rule borrowed directly from the movies and from when music was in albums. An artist is expected to learn the craft and apply it to successively more sophisticated projects in increasingly sophisticated ways. It’s still the standard model for the career progression of architects. God knows why.

And Frank Gehry too, although he learned the hard way. His Walt Disney Concert Hall was conceived in 1987 but opened 2003. Bilbao Gugg. was conceived in 1991 and completed 1997.


Love it or hate it, Bilbo Gugg is more sophisticated and it shows. In the showbiz rules, the next one always has to be better. Cue polite applause for Walt Disney Concert Hall.

OMA has it’s own examples. Remember the stillborn Museum Plaza from 2006?

20100922085300_NIGHTTIME RIGHT3

Polite applause for the lumpen Shenzen Stock Exchange, designed the same year.


Rule 3: The next one always has to be bigger

Again, Frank Gehry knows what this one is all about. In 2003 he described his Dundee Maggies Centre as his best work yet. Nobody believed him – not because of the Walt Disney Concert Hall the same year but because of Bilbo six years prior. Afterwards, Gehry did admit to ‘over-egging’ Maggie’s but I wonder what he meant? Normal usage of this idiom would suggest he was trying to make something into something more than it should rightly be but, if we’re honest, this happens with most buildings so if anything was over-egged, it was the pre-pub.

All the same, 2003 was a bumper year – a veritable Gehry glut. As well as the two previous there was also the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts designed in Gehry’s then floppy flappy style.


Two musical performance venues coming online the same year was never going to be good. All that gets said about the RBFCPA is that it has fabulous acoustics.

RULE 4: Stay in character


The story goes that Luchino Visconti insisted Maria Callas wear her jewelry onstage whilst playing a poor peasant girl in Bellini’s opera, La Sonambula. When she questioned the wisdom of this, Visconti replied “The audience is not paying to see a poor peasant girl. They are paying to see Maria Callas play a poor peasant girl.” Breaking RULE 4 is Gehry’s Hong Kong Maggie’s Centre that opened 2013.


It’s one thing to enjoy Meryl Streep’s mastery of foreign accents or the physical transformations of certain actors, but unless we can recognise what we enjoy about our favourite media stars despite the transformations of role, method, make-up and costume, there’s not much point to doing the job. Unanticipated and inexplicable changes in style are unwelcome. Especially when they break RULE 2 and RULE 3 as well.

RULE 5: Don’t keep them waiting

Remember the polite applause that greeted Zaha Hadid Architects’ MAXXI Museum?


The project was first announced in 2000 and took over 10 years to complete.
The Royal Institute of British Architect’s (RIBA) 2010 Stirling Prize for architecture was awarded to MAXXI. The award is presented annually for the best new European building, built or designed in Britain, judged to have made the greatest contribution to the evolution of British architecture.

You can read here what the Stirling Prize Committee had to say. This is the crucial bit.

This was a mature piece of architecture, a distillation of years of experimentation, only a fraction of which has been built. It is the quintessence of Zaha’s constant attempt to create a landscape, a series of cavernous spaces drawn with a free, roving line. The resulting piece gives the visitor a sense of exploration.

Or rather, it is what a sense of exploration – whatever the fuck that is – was imagined to be ten years ago. If something was already mature in 2000 then what did that make it in 2010? By placing the building in the context of an oeuvre rather than contemporary aesthetic (ugh!) relevance, the above quote neatly circumvents one of the problems with showbiz architecture. Buildings don’t always come online when their architects want them to. They sometimes appear out of media sequence and have no media value other than as historical/oeuvrical(?) curios. But we’re not talking about Frank Lloyd Wright here. Dame Zaha isn’t even dead yet. ZHA has more hidden in the closet. Here’s one we never thought would see the light of day.

The OPUS building in Dubai has been dutifully putting in appearances at regional property fairs since 2007 and is so much a part of the circuit nobody’s either noticed or cared it’s actually getting built. Most people probably stopped caring, thinking it’s already completed and sold. Serviced apartments are available but they’re hotel apartments, which is always a sign of owners hedging their bets on a property upturn.

opus site board

That’s their problem. Our problem is that it’s being billed as an “eroded cube” or, rather, what will be an eroded cube. Right now, it’s two cores, some columns and a few slabs. Let’s come back when it’s deconstructed.

The completed deconstructed object (I’m ashamed that that makes sense – oh what crap we have to speak these days!) should be appearing around 2016. Inshallah. When it does, people will be able to say

This was a mature piece of architecture, a distillation of years of experimentation, only a fraction of which has been built. It is the quintessence of Zaha’s constant attempt to create a landscape, a series of cavernous spaces drawn with a free, roving line. The resulting piece gives the visitor a sense of exploration.

* * * 

This showbiz subject is far from exhausted. This post is merely a starter, putting a few thoughts under a single heading and filing them for reference. My next post will pick over the first essay in the book Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture.

Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture . Edited by Sang Lee

The essay is called The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption and was written by Dr. Glen Hill. It deals with the following.

  • architectural consumption
  • the freedom to consume
  • the consumption of aesthetics
  • the aesthetics of modernity
  • the production of aesthetics
  • interpreting the aesthetic economy
  • the aesthetic economy of sustainable architecture
  • the sustainable art of subverting aesthetics

Thank you Glen, for writing this essay. Many of your thoughts and themes are familiar to me and misfits who’ve also been trying to link showbiz architecture, the aesthetics of sustainability and the past few hundred years of architectural history (and incidentally my more recent concerns such as landscape and Nature and notions of beauty spiritual or otherwise).


As far as I know, you are the first to articulate how they fit together – well done!


Misfits salutes you.

In my next post, I’ll explain why I think Dr. Hill gets it right. I’ll quote, summarise and paraphrase as I cherrypick my way through the bits that resonate most.