June 1, 2005
by Trevor Boddy
Architects are thought to be “authors” of buildings, but does this concept really apply to what they do? One way to start thinking about this is to consider another expensive collaborative art form, born of similar mixtures of technology and creativity. In the late 1950s, French film writers developed what they called the politique des auteurs–a theory that the director alone was a film’s primary creative force. New York critic Andrew Sarris popularized the idea in the English-speaking world as the “Auteur Theory.” Today, the relative contributions of writers, production designers and cinematographers all remain in the background, as we talk of a film by Martin Scorsese or Peter Greenaway.
This fiction of the solitary creator migrated from literature, and maybe it should have stayed there. By the 19th century, the notion of a single architect as “author” of major public buildings was well established in the popular imagination. Schinkel for the Altes Museum in Berlin or Garnier for L’Opera de Paris were the rock stars of their times, intensely public personages who tended to concentrate praise or blame for buildings onto themselves. My favourite image of this is the larger-than-life bust of Charles Garnier erected behind the Paris Opera, his plan rendered in gold leaf below him as if it had just dropped holus bolus from his artist’s brow.
The way architectural history and design studio has usually been taught in universities creates a pantheon of solitary creators. The notion of architects, who, by the force of their egos, transcend the contingencies of their times to create eternal art is an historically inaccurate notion, born of 19th-century romanticism. The fiction of solitary architectural authorship is also the reason why borrowings of architectural innovations from lesser-known architects by our most famous designers goes surprisingly unexamined. In the quasi-medieval historical discourse of architectural “masters,” there is no room for the more subtle idea of counter-influence–new forms arising from the ideas of less-established associates, even students.
For example, Le Corbusier’s visits to Moscow and his exposure to Moishe Ginsberg and the Constructivists in the late 1920s resulted in the enrichment of his palette with new forms and the idea of programmatic expressionism–that each building function should rhetorically express its uses volumetrically. In the next decade’s visits to Brazil, the same architect saw a more plastic version of the Modern, one that broke the grid, permitted decoration, and linked lyrically with nature.
From Ronchamps to La Tourette and beyond, Oscar Niemeyer is the ghost that runs down the hallways of nearly all of Le Corbusier’s late works. But the Parisian’s own writing and selection of projects in his Oeuvres Complet edit out the Brazilian, especially after Niemeyer’s ideas pushed out his own for the United Nations Building design. The French architect’s lack of generosity is not the point, only that his self-serving account has gone unchallenged by our historians for so long.
If anything, we critics of contemporary architecture have gone even further with this romantic notion of architect as author. The idea of the “starchitect” is the extreme version of this convenient fiction of authorship, one that begins every time one of us writers credits buildings solely with individuals rather than firms, firms rather than building teams, building teams rather than clients.
For example, a Vancouver lecture by ex-Erickson employee and senior Frank Gehry associate Randy Jefferson in the mid-1990s made it plain how important this Canadian’s contributions have been to Bilbao and the buildings that have followed it, but this was a rare glimpse inside the star-making machinery behind the popular building. The same is true for an AIBC talk last year by Joshua Ramus, a crucial shaper of Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s Seattle Public Library.
Unlike Le Corbusier, Gehry is always personally generous in crediting his collaborators, but the necessary simplifications of mass media culture likely means it will be a long time until we sort out the whos and whys of buildings we think we understand. Was Gehry’s shift to a spatially and materially richer palette the consequence of bright young associates in his office, the 3D laser scanner, new French CAD software, the Zeitgeist, or maybe the latent influence from the visual artists he chummed with? No doubt it was part and parcel of all of these, but stay tuned, as it will likely be decades before we sort out the real balance.
The counter-argument to this is that the necessary fiction of a “Frank Gehry” or “Jack Diamond” building is but a shorthand, a less clumsy verbal construction that implicitly recognizes that key partners in famous firms have evolved into roles as design editors, sometimes just design managers. Anyone working in a firm knows that you can be the “architect” of a major building without personally drawing one line of the documents used to construct it, but I sense this notion of architects being leaders of squads rather than individual stars has not inculcated as far into the public’s imagination as we would wish. The word architect used to mean “the devisor of the general forms of things,” but I suspect it has now evolved a denotation more along the lines of “movie stars who deal in bricks and mortar.”
Questions about the nature of architectural authorship come into focus when looking into the work of a Canadian architect with whom I have had a long and rich association. As no other Canadian designer, Douglas Cardinal has challenged the idea and rights implicit in the concept of “architectural authorship.” While the debate over additions to his St. Mary’s Church and his struggle over design credit for the new National Museum of the American Indian are conventionally viewed as “scandals,” they might also be viewed as the most important explorations of the idea of architectural authorship in this country. Canadian architects have been slow to credit Cardinal’s innovations in design and technology, and I suspect he may just as surely be ahead of the curve on notions of intellectual property.
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was completed on Red Deer’s then-fringe in 1969. In an era when form-driven churches were the norm, Cardinal’s first major building stands out for its innovative cable- suspended structure and early use of computers, its reconsideration of the functions of the Catholic mass, but most of all for its spatial effects and concomitant brooding spirituality. Many regard St. Mary’s as Cardinal’s only flat-out masterpiece, the building that established his popular and professional reputation.
By the early 1990s, however, St. Mary’s parishioners were less impressed, choosing a Red Deer firm to design a large addition for a parish hall and linked social spaces. Cardinal’s original plan sketched out this second wing, and the now Ottawa-based architect offered to design a revised wing, at nominal or no fee at all. They rejected his offer.
Not surprisingly, Cardinal hit the roof when the plans went public with an application for a building permit. A sense of open procession in and out of its windowed highest volumes was crucial to St. Mary’s conception, but the awkwardly conceived new addition partially obscured this edge. What is worse, the entire addition was designed in a “Cardinalesque” style, employing design elements similar to those in the original church. This accretion of cloned forms would forever obscure the boundary of the 1960s original and 1990s addition.
Cardinal’s firm sought an injunction in Federal Court to block the addition’s construction, his legal team making two arguments, one with reference to Canadian copyright legislation, the second based on our much less understood “moral rights of the artist” legal guarantees. Cardinal’s lawyers had expert witnesses speculate on the similarity between the addition’s details to Cardinal’s original, and also attest to St. Mary’s importance to Canada’s architectural culture. For their part,
the new wing’s designers argued this similarity was intended and respectful, a way of making new construction harmonize with a building they admired.
While architectural applications of copyright laws are rare enough, these further arguments about the “moral rights” of architects over the disposition of prior works would blaze new legal territory. Works of architecture are specifically referred to in this Canadian legislation, along with works of literature, painting, sculpture and so on. Previously, visual artist Michael Snow had sought and won an injunction to stop Toronto’s Eaton Centre management from putting coloured ribbons on the necks of his sculptural flock of geese in its atrium, successfully arguing that it defaced his artwork and affected his reputation.
In applying these legal concepts to architecture, Cardinal’s team argued the addition not only defaced St. Mary’s integrity, but in using a pastiche of his distinctive personal style, would also make it impossible for future visitors to correctly identify original from imitator. Cardinal stated he would rather have a raw concrete block addition than one that would forever camouflage his authorship.
Federal Court Justice James Jerome refused Cardinal’s application for an injunction, in part because of the chaos which might have ensued when every architect in this country realized they could assert “moral rights” provisions over their existing works. Cardinal had the option of taking the case to trial, which might have established new case law, but the St. Mary’s addition would have been completed before its conclusion, and the action might have cost him $1 million in legal fees. He declined, the addition got tacked on, and today the entrance and one side of St. Mary’s has lost much of its visual power and elegance.
Many Canadians were surprised when Douglas Cardinal declined any involvement with the opening ceremonies for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in fall of 2004, the last major building to be built on Washington’s Mall, opposite I.M. Pei’s East Wing. Several years previously and after all internal and external design approvals had been obtained and the $199-million building was well into the construction documents phase, Cardinal had a contractual falling-out with the Smithsonian over design fees and creative control.
The very architect the Smithsonian had engaged to evaluate Cardinal’s design and contract–New Yorker and previous Smithsonian consultant James Stewart Polshek–ended up scooping up the contract himself. At first, Polshek tried to reconceive the museum, but Washington’s powerful Fine Arts Commission under the direction of J. Carter Brown stuck by Cardinal’s design, insisting that any significant reworking would have to start all over again in its years-long urban design evaluation process for so visually sensitive a site. Polshek found himself in the difficult position of being architect of record and implementer of Cardinal’s design. To further complicate matters, Cardinal at first refused design authorship of the building as implemented by Polshek.
As the date of the building opening approached, the Smithsonian’s press materials included a 67-word statement of credits for their building, where Cardinal is listed dead last as a “design consultant,” well after the consulting ethno-botanist, electrical engineers and the person responsible for the lobby tapestries.
Were this not enough, Polshek’s only comment on the public record about the question of the NMAI’s authorship is this masterpiece of politically correct connivance, a press statement given to me and all other writers who inquired: “In the American Indian way, the consultations and design workshops conducted by the client were extraordinary collaborations that enhanced and brought closure to the design process. There is no single firm or individual solely responsible for the completion of this unique building.” Please note the use of the wiggle-word “completion” and not “design.” Cardinal chose not to grace the opening because credit (and payment) had been withheld where he felt it was due, the one thing an artist must always demand and receive.
I cannot imagine this fundamental denial of authorship being foisted upon any prominent American architect in similar circumstances, and its seeming success to date says much about how power interacts with architectural culture in our two countries. But as with the determination of who is behind the supposed innovations of Modern masters like Le Corbusier, I suspect time will be on the side of Cardinal’s recognition. The NMAI building itself is evidence, as even a facile examination of the NMAI as built reveals its continuity with the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Cardinal’s other works all the way back to St. Mary’s Church. Eventually, Douglas Cardinal will get his due–even if he doesn’t want it! These tales demonstrate that architectural authorship is more of a cultural than a legal concept, and cultures have long memories, even if some clients do not.
Trevor Boddy’s independent critical monograph The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal was named “Alberta Book of the Year” and his writings on buildings and cities have subsequently won the Western Magazine award and the Jack Webster journalism prize. Architecture critic for The Vancouver Sun, his exhibition TELLING DETAILS: The Architecture of Clifford Wiens opens at Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery in November of 2005.
The protected work of Michael Snow’s Flight Stop continues to grace the Eaton Centre in Toronto.
The north faade of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC is credited to the Polshek Partnership Architects in New York but is easily identifiable as a Douglas Cardinal design.