First, a disclaimer:
Is such a thing even possible, to designate one work the be all end all for everyone? Probably not. And even though we'll be confining our choices to the twentieth century, there's still loads of room for debate. Art and design, like politics, are emotional: The best work is forged from it, and our response is a product of it. Emotions are a kind of social anarchy where tastes are concerned; Each of us with our own internal wiring will inevitably make for spirited, complicated, and endless disagreement. Maybe awards for The Greatest are best left to accountants to tally up the tangibles, like sales and attendance. But art is a slipperier. As Humphrey Bogart said of the Oscars: " Awards are meaningless for actors, unless they all play the same part." Why should design be any different?
There are many Greatest lists, surveys, and Top Tens to choose from if you're satisfied that's close enough. But where's the fun in that? For this, The Definitive Guide to The World's Greatest Design, we're looking only for the acme, apex, and apogee : That true One. To find it may require a bit of data teasing and some creative speculation, but no matter: We'll get to the bottom of it.
Now, down to business.
According to the paper The Greatest Architects of the Twentieth Century: Goals, Methods, and Life Cycles by David Galenson published by NBER, using a method of surveying textbooks, Galenson was able to establish, based on his research, the greatest architect of the twentieth century: Le Corbusier.
Above, Le Corbusier's Chapel for Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France: The architect showing some influence of the popular Art Noveau and Art Deco movements of his time. In its Best of the Century feature in 1999, Time Magazine named The Chapel as Best Building. (Falling Water came in third.)
Time Magazine also called Le Corbusier "the most important architect of the twentieth century. Frank Lloyd Wright was more prolific [but] many would argue that Le Corbusier was more gifted." (Below, Villa Savoye, Poissy, France.)
Not that the legendary modernist didn't have his detractors. He's not only been blamed for the unsavory conditions of life in his high rises, but also for violent urban gangs. One critic accused him of being "to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform." Ouch.
Galenson also makes the claim, using the same methodology, that Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano are the twentieth century's greatest living architects.
Frank Lloyd Wright (his Fallingwater above), on the other hand, was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as "the greatest American architect of all time." (It's interesting to note that Wright also thought of himself the same way.) The prodigious Wright designed more than a 1,000 projects and completed over 500. In addition, he wrote books and articles and, like Le Corbusier, designed all matter of other stuff as well: To him the term consummate designer would certainly apply.
As for the greatest single example of architecture, the Empire State Building: Ranked number one by the AIA on its List of America's Favorite Architecture and named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Designed by architect William H. Lamb and completed in 1931, it was the tallest building in the world for 40 years (and is once again the tallest in NYC) and perhaps the greatest example of the Art Deco building style. It also remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.
In 2010, Vanity Fair magazine published a survey among 52 of the world's most prominent architects, a list that included 11 Pritzker winners. This Western-tilted jury included the likes of Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Zaha Hadid, and Richard Meier. The quesiton? What is the most important piece of architecture built since 1980? The winner: Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Here's Phillip Johnson's anointment of the master in the same article:
"In February 1998, at the age of 91, Philip Johnson, the godfather of modern architecture, who 40 years earlier had collaborated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the iconic Seagram Building, in Manhattan, traveled to Spain to see the just-completed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He stood in the atrium of the massive, titanium-clad structure with its architect, Frank Gehry, as TV cameras from Charlie Rose captured him gesturing up to the torqued and sensually curving pillars that support the glass-and-steel ceiling and saying, 'Architecture is not about words. It’s about tears.' Breaking into heavy sobs, he added, 'I get the same feeling in Chartres Cathedral.' Bilbao had just opened its doors, but Johnson, the principal apostle of the two dominant forms of architecture in the 20th century—Modernism and Postmodernism—and the design establishment’s ultimate arbiter, was prepared to call it on the spot. He anointed Gehry 'the greatest architect we have today' and later declared the structure 'the greatest building of our time.' ”
There you have it: The Pritzker laureate and architect that brought Philip Johnson to tears. And in terms of cultural impact, Gehry's Guggenheim alone has had the effect of taking the otherwise unassuming Bilbao, a municipality only slightly larger than the city of Bakersfield, and bringing it to the world stage as a global destination.
Frank Gehry, World's Greatest Architect; The Guggenheim in Bilbao, World's Greatest (modern) Building.
Next in Part 2: Interior design.