Losing the architecture war

A few weeks back, the New York Times was talking about the new American embassy in London. It's an article worth quoting at length:
Yet both Richard Meier and Thom Mayne of Morphosis turned in far more sophisticated designs. Mr. Meier’s, which breaks the building mass down into a Cubist composition of curves and planes, is one of his best in recent years; Mr. Mayne’s, a distorted horseshoe wrapped around a deconstructed version of the Capitol dome in Washington, packs the most symbolic punch. (If you want to dismiss them as “star architects,” be my guest, but the designs explain why they got their reputations.)

More vexing, though, is how few visions there were to choose from. Of 37 American firms that applied for the competition, only 4 were invited to propose detailed designs. (The New York firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners also submitted a relatively conservative scheme.)

This is especially troubling at a time when American architecture has reached a state of crisis. A whole generation of talents has seen careers languish through lack of opportunity, while the reputations of their European counterparts have soared. Firms like Preston Scott Cohen, Daly Genik Architects and Greg Lynn Form, to name just a few, have been shut out of high-profile government commissions by a convoluted competition process that favors known quantities.

Who knows if they would have done better. But their inclusion would have made for a livelier, more informed debate, one that in itself would have been a step toward the democratic cultural identity the country is trying to promote.

Yesterday, Foreign Policy picked up on America's Shanghai World's Fair pavilion:
Despite nearly two decades of U.S. government inattention to Expos, some in the State Department and the U.S. Expo community had hopes that the United States might put on a better show in Shanghai. In November 2006, the State Department, which had taken over the role of managing U.S. participation at Expos from the USIA, published an official "request for proposal" (RFP) to design, build, and fund a U.S. pavilion in Shanghai. Among other provisions, it required a detailed plan for raising a hefty $75 million to $100 million even though most of the national pavilions at Expo 2010 cost less than $30 million and the eventual U.S. pavilion is budgeted at $61 million. Despite this high bar, several groups of designers, architects, and producers submitted detailed proposals, including a proposal that had Frank Gehry as an architect. But the State Department rejected them all, and according to correspondence shared between the department and the last rejected proposal group, the RFP ended in late 2007 without a team in place.
A year ago, the Washington Post felt hopeful enough to declare, "the age of the American embassy as architectural wasteland may finally be coming to an end." Sadly, that hope seems to be quite delayed.