Once upon a time, the great architecture of the world was strictly local. Travelers seeking the wonders of London, Paris and Florence saw buildings designed by Londoners, Parisians and Florentines. Or at least the English, the French and the Italians. Though architects were not necessarily tied to one city — Raphael was born in Urbino but built in Florence and Rome — most stayed close to home. Take Bernini’s attempt to spread his wings: Louis XIV invited the artist and architect to finish the east front of the Louvre but eventually turned the work over to a Frenchman, finding Bernini’s facade to be too Italian. And so it was, and so was he.Today, European architects regularly work in the United States, Americans work in Europe and everybody works in Asia. This globalization of architecture would seem like a good thing for us, and it’s obviously good for many architects. If you are a city hoping to ping the world’s cultural radar, an institution looking to attract donors, or a condominium developer trying to lure deep-pocketed tenants, your architect better have a recognizable name.Architecture, however, is a social art, rather than a personal one, a reflection of a society and its values rather than a medium of individual expression. So it’s a problem when the prevailing trend is one of franchises, particularly those of the globe-trotters: Renzo, Rem, Zaha and Frank. It’s exciting to bring high-powered architects in from outside. It flatters a city’s sense of self-importance, and fosters the perception of a place as a creative hotbed. But in the long run it’s wiser to nurture local talent; instead of starchitects, locatects.
In a world where music, movies, dress, technology and even cuisine are increasingly global, it may be futile to expect that architecture can be an exception. But if we don’t nurture local talent, we’ll end up with overwrought theme parks, orchestras with only guest virtuosos, opera companies with only divas. The great imports are much too different from each other to make all places look the same — but they do make places all look different in the same way. Which is almost as bad.