Throughout history, architects whose works are well known to the general public are few and far between, a natural fact, considering the vast number of architects at any given time or generation who have emerged from schools, colleges, worked or went into practice, and yet remained unknown all their lives. Of these few, some, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Sinan, I M Pei and Walter Burley Griffin among others, had gone so far as to become household names known to the average person, achieving legendary status for architectural works that made great impact on their community and its history. Some others are well known within architectural circles or people involved in design and construction, their works being featured in periodicals, or by having achieved a level of maturity or fame that numerous architectural publications have been written about them.
Unlike their counterparts in the middle ages who achieved fame by working under patronage of the State or the Church, architects of the modern era achieved reverence for their works mainly from recognition by their peers for important contributions they had made in the field of architecture, both from the philosophical and technological standpoint. Such achievements were initially publicized within the architectural community through magazines, college publications or discourses in architectural schools. In the twentieth century, by virtue of architectural theories being primarily concerned with the development of society and improvements to the built environment, many architects soon became featured in the popular press. In the post-war era, for example, Time magazine occasionally featured architects on its front cover, such as Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and in more recent times, Philip Johnson, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid.
Today, architects are honoured as laureates in many international and regional architectural prizes, among the most prestigious being the Pritzker Prize, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the AIA Gold Medal and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The selection process for these prizes is invariably stringent, with nominations received from all over the world, the eventual winner being decided by a highly qualified panel of jury comprising recognized professionals in various fields ranging from architecture, business, education, art, culture and publishing.
These prizes reveal important recognizable traits of the recipients as embodied in their works. Outstanding architects are people of character, integrity and genius. Most display great personal qualities as innovators who, with tireless devotion to their art, coupled with honest and correct intentions, strive to look for better ways to build. In doing so, they create architectural works that employ either cutting edge technology that change the way people look at construction and its paradigms, or in contrast, use the simplest utilitarian methods of local construction tradition, that revive public interest in hitherto little known regional arts or crafts as a means to address humanistic needs. Furthermore, they use materials that are economical and practical to its purpose, but arranged in new, thought provoking, unprecedented ways that place their buildings at the frontiers of artistic expression.
Now, architectural writers use a popular term, ‘starchitects’, coined as a neologism to describe architects who have achieved celebrity status, having produced outstanding works in the field of architecture. Giving celebrity status to architects is nothing new, but a natural tendency by society to recognize outstanding artists, a notion that had existed since the Renaissance. However, only time will tell if a ‘starchitect’ will become legendary, an outstanding individual whose timeless works will remain revered by generations to come.