When Starchitects Attack: 4 High-Profile Feuds

MoMA’s new expansion isn’t the first commission to cool relations between famous architects.

When Starchitects Attack: 4 High-Profile Feuds

New York’s American Folk Art Museum isn’t the only thing the Museum of Modern Art’s latest redesign is destroying. After months of deliberation over how to make way for MoMA’s proposed expansion, architects Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio recommended MoMA destroy its smaller neighbor, the architecturally significant Folk Museum, which MoMA owns. Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, the architects behind the Folk Art Museum and longtime friends of Diller and Scofidio, understandably objected. Now, reportedly, the two couples are barely speaking. They’re not the first high-profile architects to see their goodwill eroded by a commission. Some others who have duked it out:


Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan

Image: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park home via Wikipedia

In 1887, prominent Chicago architect Louis Sullivan hired a young Frank Lloyd Wright as a junior draftsman. Sullivan would become Wright’s mentor, and would eventually supply Wright a loan to purchase and build his first home in Oak Park, just outside Chicago. Wright’s lavish spending was constantly putting him deeply in debt, though, and he began taking freelance residential projects for extra cash, in violation of his contract with Adler & Sullivan’s firm. When it came to light, Sullivan was furious, and Wright left the firm (whether he was fired or left on his own is disputed). The two didn’t speak again for years.

Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry

Ground Zero via Flickr user CBP Photography

As architects and developers debated what would be done with Ground Zero after 9/11, renown architect Peter Eisenman got snippy with the mega-renown Frank Gehry, who had complained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine that the low fee the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was offering firms for design proposals was demeaning. At a 2003 forum discussing the designs, Eisenman burst out, saying “It doesn’t matter a damn, Frank Gehry, that we were paid only $40,000.” Gehry wasn’t at the event. According to The Guardian, Eisenman also put the sentiment in writing, sending Gehry a letter that opened with “Dear Frank, We think you are a prick.” Zinger.

Daniel Libeskind and David Childs

Image: © Silverstein Properties via Daniel Libeskind

The feuding over Ground Zero put more than one pair of architects at odds. In 2003, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and New York Governor George Pataki chose Daniel Libeskind to design the masterplan for the rebuilt World Trade Center. The problem was, Larry Silverstein, the developer who holds the lease on the site, insisted that his favored architect, David Childs, would be the one to build what would become the Freedom Tower. Eventually, they worked out a compromise: Childs would be the lead architect, Libeskind would collaborate with him, keeping the resulting product consistent with Libeskind’s original master plan. Predictably, it did not go well. The New York Observer summed it up thusly: “Big Architects In Twin Snits.” The situation would have been tough for any designer, but Libeskind was no stranger to butting heads with fellow architects, either. In his autobiography, he describes tiffs with Norman Foster and Peter Eisenman as well.

Liz Diller/Richard Scofidio and Billie Tsien/Tod Williams

Image: Folk Art Museum via Wikipedia, MoMA redesign

The two architectural power couples rose to prominence around the same time in New York City design circles, and have been friends for years. They’ve had dinner together, travelled together, –they’re both even on the current shortlist for the new Vancouver Art Gallery. Many hoped that when Diller and Scofidio’s firm was hired by MoMA to evaluate whether demolishing the Folk Art building was absolutely necessary to MoMA’s expansion, they would find a way to salvage Tsien and Williams’ work. Unfortunately, “it was just a kind of impossible task,” Diller said, proposing demolition. In a statement, Tsien and Williams called the decision “a missed opportunity.”

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut