(Photo courtesy of C.G. Schmidt/Steve Chamberlin/Miwaukee Art Museum)

Santiago Calatrava, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, Tadao Ando, Norman Foster, Fumihiko Maki and Jose Rafael Moneo–to name only seven. When it comes to designer labels, made in the U.S.A. is wearing thin and imports are the fashion.

CALATRAVA His museum addition (right) is making a big splash in Milwaukee.

"It's the pattern now," says Bill Lacy, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize and a professional advisor to owners seeking architects. "If you want the best, you should spread your net as widely as possible," he tells his clients.

Owners say nationality has nothing to do with the choice of architect. "In many ways, Calatrava's presentation best matched the goals and aspirations of our community," says Tom Tomlinson, project director for the Atlanta Symphony Center.

Atlanta's High Museum of Art, designed by Richard Meier, picked Piano for its expansion, but not because he is from Italy. "Everyone loves the Richard Meier museum," says Marjorie Henry, the High's director of architectural planning and design. But with Genoa-based Piano, "we are getting another great master," she adds.


In New York City, the Morgan Library also selected Piano, after it rejected three New York City-based designers, because he is "a gifted modernist capable of working in different styles plus he is respectful of different contexts," says Charles E. Pierce Jr., the library's director.

ANDO'S HALLMARK Japanese architect is known for architectural concrete to be used in Calder Museum. (Photos top and top right courtesy of AIA)

And Marla Price, director of the Modern Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas, says the museum picked Tokyo-based Ando because he had the most "breathtaking concept," not because he is Japanese.

If it all boils down to the best, then the question becomes "Why is there so much high-quality architecture outside U.S. borders?" The usual answer is that in the U.S., architecture is business and buildings are a commodity. In European and Japanese cultures, architecture is revered as an art form.

But not everyone accepts the premise that Europe and Japan are better breeders of "starchitects." "There are plenty of good U.S. designers," chorus a gaggle of architects, adding that they are often more appreciated abroad than in their own backyard.

Some see the foreign influx as an inevitable reaction to American exports. "The worm has turned," says Robert A.M. Stern, of the New York City-based firm that bears his name and also the dean of Yale University's School of Architecture.

They also see the trend as part of the phenomena of architects without borders, enabled by "fly and fax," e-mail and the Internet. "The way the world works has changed," says Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune. "The market is global."

America's budding romance with "starchitecture" is also viewed as economic. Politicians and powerful business interests, from Des Moines to Richmond, salivate over the promise of cultural tourism as an anchor for rejuvenating cities. The hope is that a Calatrava can do for a Milwaukee what Frank Gehry did for Bilbao, Spain. "The spectacle building epitomizes this," says Kamin.

PIANO Architect snagged New York Times building, irking U.S. high-rise designers. (Photo top courtesy of Stefano Goldberg; Photo right courtesy of Forest Ratner Companies/The New York Times Company/Renzo Piano Building Workshop/Fox & Fowle Architects © Jock Pottle/Esto)

Mostly, foreign architects are snagging museums, theaters, concert halls, libraries and other cultural buildings. But to add insult to injury, Piano and Foster are each designing a tall building–long the specialty of the U.S. house even for export. When the New York Times Co. picked Genoa-based Piano's Building Workshop for its new headquarters in Manhattan and then the Hearst Corp. selected London's Norman Foster for an expansion of its midtown headquarters, American architects felt double-crossed. "We've been paying our dues and putting up with slim budgets and not a lot of support from our clients for a long time," says one. "And this is how we are repaid."

The Hearst Corp. also selected a foreign superstar to design its headquarters tower in Manhattan.
(Photo top courtesy of
Foster and Partners)

Not surprisingly, American architects who work abroad are more philosophical about the turned worm. New Haven, Conn.-based Cesar Pelli calls it "a natural development." Stern says he welcomes "the competition and the learning experience." New York City-based Rafael Vinoly calls the situation "extremely positive." New York City's Steven Holl, whose first building is in Japan, says any other position is provincial.

But the fact that airplanes fly in two directions is little consolation to local U.S. designers as they watch foreigners snag commissions that were once almost exclusively their province. "I had to take my ego and toss it out the window," says David Kahler, the design principal for KahlerSlater Architects, architect of record for the skewed, warped and "flappable" addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which opened in 2001 and was designed by Zurich-based Calatrava (ENR 1/22/01 p. 30).

The same is true for Fox & Fowle Architects. Deciding to take a back seat to Piano as executive architect on the New York Times headquarters required considerable soul-searching, says Dan Kaplan, senior principal for New York City-based firm.

Kaplan and others are envious of the ability of foreign architects to get their visions realized in the U.S. Kaplan is also impressed with Piano's command of the "high art of diplomacy" with the client, the city and even the state. "The experience has been great for us, a real kick in the pants," says Kaplan.

Rotterdam-based Koolhaas similarly impresses. "Rem is able to transcend the whole client-architect relationship," says Jay Taylor, principal of local structural engineer of record Magnusson Klemencic Associates for the Seattle Central Library, which is just topping out. "It's more like a patron-artist relationship." During value engineering, Taylor says Koolhaas suggested raising more money rather than modifying design, something an American architect would not likely do or get away with.

"Foreign architects, who often bring naivete to a project, don't have the same baggage or encumbrances" as Americans, says Taylor. Koolhaas used cultural differences to his advantage, especially regarding U.S. rules and regulations.

Sources say the key to making these distinctive jobs work is to apply the collaborative European and Asian work models. "By collaborating, we not only develop a friendship but also there is a technology transfer, which they can use on other projects," says Tokyo-based Fumihiko Maki, the designer for a media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

The most important thing is to adjust to the needs of each architect, U.S. or not, says Laurence Burns, principal of Kendall\Heaton Associates, Houston, a firm that only offers architect of record services. Kendall\Heaton is involved with Calatrava's Atlanta Symphony Center and his cathedral in Oakland, Calif., both still under design, and completed projects including Moneo's addition to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Ando's new art museum building in Fort Worth.

CATHEDRAL OF GRACE Contractor sings the praises of architect Moneo. (Photo courtesy of Morley Construction Company)

A major difference for foreign architects working in the U.S. is that in Europe and Japan, there is more room for revision during construction. "In the U.S., most owners can't see that happening if there is going to be control over cost," says Burns.

For any signature building to be successful, there must be an "organic team" and a high level of trust, says Atila Zekioglu, managing principal of the Los Angeles office of multidisciplinary engineer Arup, London. Arup is the Seattle library's mechanical-electrical-plumbing consultant.

To set the stage for collaboration in Milwaukee, team leaders took a trip to Europe, spending 10 days with Calatrava and his family. "We were not just looking at his projects," says Steven Chamberlin, president of CG Schmidt, the project's local construction manager. "We were with him in his home, learning about his way of thinking."

Collaboration, inclusion and mutual respect are novel experiences for American contractors accustomed to the adversarial, fragmented, litigious and dollar-is-king nature of the industry. "We had a blast," says Chamberlin, despite the considerable challenges of construction.

Terry Dooley, who retired from Morley Construction, Santa Monica, Calif., after having led the team that built the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, sings similar praises of Moneo: "It was an honor to associate with...a talented and sensitive architect and a delightful person."

And Paul A. Sipes, senior project manager for Linbeck Construction Corp., the general contractor at risk for the Fort Worth museum, says he is proud of the job and hopes the craftsmen involved will apply lessons learned about planning to future work.

But it's structural engineers who seem to have the most fun with foreign superstars. "Rem's idea that nothing is impossible makes you push the envelope," says Taylor. "It's wonderful."

Mike Fletcher, managing director of the Atlanta office of Walter P. Moore and Associates, structural engineer for Calatrava's Atlanta Symphony Center, currently in schematic design, waxes on about Calatrava's commanding presence, his attention to the structure, his reliance on the human form and his ability to free-associate on many subjects. "You want to hear him talk," says Fletcher, though, at times, the problem is "getting a word in edgewise."

John Kissinger, vice president of the Milwaukee museum's local structural engineer, Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates Inc., says he was also enriched by the experience of working with Calatrava, and hopes some day to do another job of the same caliber.

The same is said about Ando. "I enjoyed working with him," says Leo Galletta, managing principal of the Dallas office of structural engineer Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers. "He found certain things important, but was willing to listen."

SEATTLE LIBRARY STAR Koolhaas (pointing in photo) turns the architect-client relationship into one of patron-artist. (Photo top courtesy of the Seattle Public Library; left courtesy of Magnusson Klemencic Associates/Michael Dickter)

Even with collaboration, producing "starchitecture" is far from easy. "Certainly there are challenges," says Alexandra Harris, capital program director for the Seattle Public Library. The list includes working across many time zones, greater costs for travel and language barriers.

Dooley says it is essential for any "distant" design architect, foreign or not, to have a senior local representative and be allied with a strong local executive architect, familiar with local codes and practice.

A superstar's tight fist can be another thorn. Sources say that getting them to make decisions and give approvals in a timely manner can be tough, making cost estimating and scheduling even tougher.

Quality control can also be an issue, especially with the Japanese designers, who have a reputation for being meticulous. Maki says he likes the challenge of working in the U.S., to help improve quality.

MAKI'S MEDIA LAB Architect likes the challenge of improving construction in the U.S. (Photo courtesy Of MIT)

But Dana Buntrock, assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Japanese Architecture as a Collaborative Process (Spoon Press, 2001, London), says that's a tall order. She points to Ando's initial experience with concrete, on a Chicago job. It was so "horrendous" that the first walls were torn down, she says.

(Photo courtesy Of Maki And Associates)

For the Fort Worth museum, not a single contractor–and inquiries went out to more than 50–would even take a shot at Ando's hallmark architecturally exposed concrete, with its long, tall, flat expanses and very sharp corners. Linbeck did the concrete work with its own forces, something it had prepared to do up front.

"It was very challenging," says Sipes, but worth the effort. And that's why Americans who have hitched their wagons to a foreign "starchitect" say they hope for a repeat experience.