A starchitect is an architect who becomes widely known among the general public as well as in the architecture community. One could consider a starchitect a celebrity architect; these high profile figures often have star power and public clout. In addition to designing buildings, some starchitects also expand into home furnishings and luxury goods, hoping to extend the branding power of their names. They are often the subjects of in-depth profiles in magazines and newspapers, and they pop up on television as well, upon occasion.
The word is a portmanteau of “star” and “architect,” and it is generally used pejoratively. Some people think of starchitects as the supermodels of the architecture world, pushing for fame and glory at all costs. Their work is often extremely avant-garde and very loud; it demands attention from the viewer with distinctive, bold, and large design elements. For more traditionalist communities and architects, the work of starchitects can be a bit intense, and some people find starchitect projects quite distasteful.
Some well known examples of starchitects include Anton Gaudi, Jeff Kipnis, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Philippe Starck, I.M. Pei, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Although many people speak derisively of the work of starchitects, the work of some of these individuals is certainly unique, and some people find it both striking and enjoyable. Starchitects have certainly pushed the boundaries of modern architecture, making previously unheard of architectural features desirable and acceptable among the general community.
Since starchitects carry a lot of power and clout, some developers attach them to projects in the hopes that the projects will be approved. This is often the case with controversial construction schemes, like plans to build large apartment complexes or tall office buildings. The developers typically bring a starchitect on board early, with the plan of selling the project on the architect's name. Many cities are seduced by the scale of these projects, along with the star power, sometimes approving questionable projects and regretting it later.
Some famous projects by starchitects include the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, the Pompidou Center in France, the Seattle Central Library in the United States, and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Finland. These projects are distinguished by their so-called “wow factor,” a reference to the word most often emitted upon seeing these buildings for the first time. High profile projects like these illustrate the amazing power that a starchitect has to get away with highly unusual and sometimes quite expensive projects.