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Cathedral and bike shed: icons and the city; This year's Venice Biennale addresses cities. Here, Charles Jencks argues that what he describes as the 'convulsive beauty' of the iconic building will continue to be significant in their future.

Monuments have lost their power to enshrine permanent memories, but society has scarcely lost its appetite for grand structures. Quite the opposite: the self-important building characterises our time, partly because the size of commissions becomes ever larger under late-capitalism and partly because architects and their commercial products must compete for attention. So a strange mood has developed, something of a double-bind, where the architect and society both have misgivings about the iconic building but cannot help producing it, in ever greater numbers and in ever weirder forms. This is a cause for considerable irony, and a little analysis.

Monumental change

Consider the decline of the monument, something that sets in with the rise of modernisation and the constant upheavals of the marketplace. When whole areas of the city, as Marx described them, 'melt into air' because of development, when the names of squares and districts change overnight, what is the meaning of a monument? It can signify anything, and often today that might be an embarrassing change in sentiment. This can be seen clearly in places of revolutionary change or military conflict. Vietnam and Iraq have witnessed the constant toppling of monuments and renaming of squares. But the shift was already apparent in eighteenth-century France.

In the space of about fifty years, the major public square in Paris next to the Tuilleries was re-named and restyled five times. First, in its creation, what was christened the Place Louis XV had a facelift and a new monumental setting for the new monument to the King, an equestrian statue based on that of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Then, like Saddam Hussein's statues, this was toppled in a revolution, and the square was named after the event, in 1789. Then, after the guillotine had done its work on Danton, Robespierre, Mme Roland, and countless others, the Place de la Revolution was re-styled as the Place de la Concorde--for twenty years. Predictably, with the restoration it was rechristened 'Place Louis XV' and then, on schedule at the appropriate moment. 'Place Louis XVI'. Finally, because of an overwhelming desire to please the people, King Louis-Philippe re-minted the old coin for the area, calling it the Place de la Concorde. More honestly it might have been Discorde. What was the monumental strategy of Louis-Philippe? Where the guillotine was, he erected a large, granite obelisk, borrowed handily from Luxor and, underlining the point of the images and hieroglyphs carved into its surface, pronounced the great lesson for France: 'It would not recall a single political event'. Fantastique!

Here is the first icon of calculated ambiguity, call it an 'icon without a clear iconography', or as I term it, an 'enigmatic signifier'. Ever since Louis-Philippe, artists, architects and now the general public have learned to enjoy, or suffer, their perplexing situation. The monument has been toppled as much by commercial society as by revolutions, by branding as by conscious iconoclasm. It's true the World Trade Center was destroyed as a symbol of American hegemony, as an icon of a foreign policy that was hated; but it is untrue to think that Americans ever liked the building very much, or thought of it as a venerable monument worth worshipping. That is, until it was brought down, repeatedly, on TV. At that point, the media gave the ruins and the previous image an enduring religious presence. An icon always has a trace of sanctity about it; it is an object to be worshipped, however fitfully.

Spiritual inflation

And this leads to the second reason that the iconic building has replaced the monument. In our time in the West, as Chesterton's adage has it, when men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. This epigram nicely states the problem for society and the architect. Today, anything can be an icon. The philosopher, Arthur Danto, has drawn the same conclusion in the post-Warhol world of the marketplace: 'Anything can be a work of art'. A Brillo box was Warhol's contribution to this truth, a ridiculously banal object, as unimportant as he could find. Yet with his nomination of the throwaway package, one supported by Leo Castelli and then the larger art world, this ephemeral box became expensive art. Marcel Duchamp, originator of the ready-made fifty years earlier, was piqued; at least his objets-trouves had a sculptural and industrial presence, a surreal charge, a convulsive beauty. Yet Duchamp's ire had no more effect than other attacks on Pop Art. Along with many other contemporary art movements, the politics of the counter culture ushered in the period of pluralism and relativity, the era of post-modernism.

The implications were not terribly pressing in the conservative world of architecture, at least for thirty years. Then Frank Gehry's Guggenheim and the so-named 'Bilbao Effect' did their work. At that point, developers and mayors could see the economic logic of the sculptural gesture (with its many enigmatic signifiers), and the same method was applied to any and every building type. This presented a semantic problem, inverting notions of appropriateness and decorum.


'Lincoln Cathedral', Nikolaus Pevsner had famously pronounced, 'is architecture, while a bicycle shed is building.' Architecture versus mere building, everyone carries around this historical distinction and it tells them when to ornament the building, or make it a whole sculptural ornament. So, what happens when this difference is eroded, or even reversed; when a bicycle shed becomes not only architecture, but an icon?

That is the question raised today in an age when anything can be believed. Consider some of the more famous recent iconic buildings, the ones that receive media saturation from New York to Beijing. The Prada headquarters buildings in New York and Tokyo by Rem Koolhaas and Herzog and De Meuron; the LVMH Tower in New York by Christian de Portzamparc (AR May 2000); Philip Johnson's AT & T Building; Toyo Ito's TOD building in Tokyo, for shoes; or convention centres by Peter Eisenman and Santiago Calatrava; and, perhaps most symbolically, Future Systems' building for Selfridges in Birmingham (AR October 2003). I have selected only commercial exemplars to bring out the fact that relatively banal building tasks have usurped the expressive role of more elevated ones--demonstrating the relativity of post-modernism. But the poignant truth about the last mentioned structure is that it has appropriated the position of the church, both literally and metaphorically. Here, an all-over skin of glistening discs bumps and grinds its way to the edges of a big site, sprawling like a garrulous matron at a cocktail party, determined to strut her stuff while all the time, squashed low in the background, are the darkened bones of an unloved church--dirty, miserable and in the shade. As in Thurber's world, the woman's bloom brings on the man's cringe. Selfridges, as its architects grant, is meant to be sexy and remind one of a Paco Rabanne dress, body-hugging clothes, sparkling sequins, tits and bums and, on the inside, yet more intimate parts.

Why not? This emporium markets the body image, so why can't the whole building be an icon to taking off and putting on clothes, to narcissism? If sexuality pervades the media and the arts, why can't architecture reflect it too? If people no longer go to church, only follow politics as a sport, and dedicate themselves to shopping, then why can't Prada become the icon of the moment? Clothes are worshipped, scanty-clad celebrities are emulated today almost like saints, and money is the only universal in which a global culture believes.


The iconic buildings that have arisen recently in Asia, Africa and the Muslim world often underscore these general points. They appear to have little faith in the iconography and symbolism they sport. Like slogans they hang around, with embarrassment, in the air. In this sense, failed iconic architecture is a very good symbol of failed belief, which is why some people hate the genre. Icons without a supporting iconography are like spots on the skin that signify measles, an unintended betrayal of meaning, a symptom waiting for the doctor's analysis, often a denial of the very meaning they hope to assert. In such cases, the genre should be re-christened Ironic Iconic for it sends self-cancelling messages. Graham Morrison, an English architect and critic of the movement, speaks of the River Thames transformation into the Costa del Icon. Like Mrs Malaprop putting on airs and confusing words, the failure of iconography can be funny, as long is it is happening to other people.

Overdetermined and here to stay

The problem, of course, is that it is happening to us and the trend will not go away simply because architects and critics don't like it. The iconic building is an over-determined genre, it has many deep causes that find support in the economy and society The two I have mentioned, the decline in belief and the eclipse of the monument are powerful enough, but consider the other forces. Politicians, such as John Prescott in Britain (until recently) and mayors such as Bloomberg in New York, demand the 'wow factor' in new building, explicitly ask for the 'Bilbao Effect', which brought in millions of dollars to that rust-belt city. Developers have always had one eye on this factor. It is nothing new for skyscrapers or the recent spate of competitive tall buildings that Mayor Livingstone is promoting in London.

Beyond the competitive drives of a global society and a celebrity culture, both of which insist on the mediation of architecture by the mass media, there is the public's growing taste for iconic building. When done well, by Gehry at Bilbao or with his Disney Hall in Los Angeles, it finds a popular response parallel to that in the art world. While few modernists, such as Picasso, became celebrities, it is now a well-travelled route to the top in Brit Art and for their American counterparts. Peter Eisenman has said no architect can hope to place a building in The New York Times without a press agent, indeed only one of the best agents, because these column-inches are the rarest commodity. When artists and architects see their branding departments as essential to their work (and Damien Hirst has said it is the most important thing for an artist) the information world has finally exacted its revenge. However, one should not therefore underestimate the desire of the public for good iconic buildings. They still make people leave home.




The erosion of deference and hierarchy

The critics of the iconic building often assume we are living in a Christian or Modern or socialist culture, that is, one with some coherence. Or, perhaps, they hope we will soon recapture such a condition. For instance, in The Last Icons, Miles Glendinning argues for a return to a 'hierarchy of decorum', in effect a new social contract going back to the eighteenth century and its hierarchy of the genres and the arts (with historical painting at the top and genre scenes at the bottom); he ends up supporting social housing and the Cumbernauld New Town, as antidotes to the iconic disease.

Of course one must curse and lampoon follies, and try to prevent them, although demanding better icons by better architects might be a better policy. In any case, the strategy of deference to a past hierarchy is at best a stopgap and at worst a craven posture. Consider Graham Morrison's solution to iconitis, the building that doesn't know its social station. He puts forward Richard Rogers' London skyscraper on Leadenhall Street as a positive icon. Why? Because it is 'in keeping with [its] surrounding without compromising architectural integrity' and, in particular, because it 'brilliantly' defers to St Paul's Cathedral'. Whether this tall structure is in keeping and doffs its cap to St Paul's is as likely as global cooling; the real question is the more difficult one for a pluralist culture, facing up to the unpopular assumptions behind deference.

The unpleasant truth of the current fashion-celebrity syndrome is that it substitutes fame and notoriety for traditional value. It knows the price of everything, in Oscar Wilde's definition of the cynic, and the value of nothing. Today, social hierarchies are suspect and are perceived to rely only on power and class. The value and symbolism that used to justify an integrated culture are no longer currency. That is why Modern architects, especially commercial ones, sublimate iconography to technique and abstraction. They don't ask what deeper symbols a building should provide, nor in what style should it be, because these questions are thought to be dangerous and meaningless. Instead, they take the pragmatic route of deferring to St Paul's; and again not because they are Christians, or sudden converts to Prince Charles' contextualism. Rather, it is the easy way to get planning permission. 'Being in keeping' means 'get the job, and keep it'. Wilde's definition of the cynic was right.

Calculated outrage

In this light, it is easier to understand the negative logic of the outrageous iconic building, the way it seeks to provoke a paranoid reaction, especially among journalists. Since the scarce resource of a celebrity culture is column inches, these structures have to grab attention with an unusual image that annoys just as it inspires. This ironic message can be carefully double-coded. With one gesture it says 'who wants to defer to the outmoded symbols of St Paul's, especially in an age of celebrity?' Here it follows the logic of the art world, one adopted by the successful exhibits Sensation and Apocalypse at the Royal Academy: shock and awe against symbols of conformity. If an iconic building isn't hated enough, as the Eiffel Tower was at its inception, it will never inspire enough negative energy to be noticed, and then go on to be debated and defended.

Here we touch one of the deep and complicated truths of the genre. How does the successful iconic building inspire paranoia, fear, even initial loathing, and then go on to win over a more permanent response? How does the architect steer between the Scylla of the one-liner and the Charybdis of mere provocation? The Costa del Icon is a real cautionary tale; horrors outnumber Cinderellas. Obviously there is no simple strategy of design and, as in all things creative, risk and failure stalk every move. Yet there are several basic guidelines, if not rules, for dealing with the iconic building.

Cosmic and multiple

In my recent book The Iconic Building--The Power of Enigma, 2005, I argue that architects, through their recent practice, have shown a few successful strategies of design. If an iconic building must have a new and provocative image, but cannot directly call on the iconography that underlay traditional or religious architecture (because that is no longer believed), then it must produce enigmatic signifiers that allude to unusual codes. These will be affective, and some of the excitement will come from the convulsive interaction of the meanings. In the case of Norman Foster's Swiss Re skyscraper in London, the codes are fairly obvious (missile, screw, bullet, penis, finger, pinecone, cigar) and also somewhat far-fetched (brain and Russian doll). The sketches that Madelon Vriesendorp and I have made to bring out these analogies usually map an outline or silhouette, and obviously there are many more than the ones we show, particularly visual metaphors in the details, materials and interior spaces. All these similarities make up the compound experience of relating the new and unusual shape to the old and familiar code. That relating is what the eye and brain do, when confronted by a shockingly different building. They map new onto old visual codes. This instant and largely unconscious process produces the metaphor--in Foster's skyscraper the tabloid one, 'it looks like a gherkin'--and the public and journalistic excitement. And that reaction creates the iconic building, the architecture in the shape of something uncanny, fascinating, horrible, lovely.




If multiple enigmatic signifiers overcome the bane of the one-liner, they also have another potential virtue. They can allude to nature and the cosmos. At the end of my treatise I summarise many of the key signifiers and argue that, if you scratch an iconic building hard enough, it bleeds such meanings: overtones of the sun and water; fish and animals; crystals and our body parts; rhythmical growth forms of plants and galaxies. These patterns of nature are the not-so-hidden code of the iconic building, and perhaps they are so for want of anything more pressing, faute de mieux. If the architect is going to spend an excess of time and money on an unusual image, one that does not have the sanction of religion or ideology, then in the age of the ecological crisis it will be an image that relates us to the cosmos. Not everyone agreed. Several critics have said this conclusion was sadly predictable, a special pleading which they disliked. They didn't want icons to the cosmos. As Woody Allen opined, 'What has the universe ever done for me?' In effect, they would prefer the return of God.

In His absence, however, it is possible I was right: cosmogenesis, the process of the universe unfolding, will become the ultimate referent of this expression. We will have to wait another ten years to find out, but already there is some evidence. Consider three iconic buildings not in the book, because they were incomplete, or I hadn't yet seen them: the new Library of Alexandria in Egypt (AR September 2001); the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff (AR April 2000), and Rem Koolhaas' Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal (AR August 2005). They also lend support to the theory. The three are obvious icons meant to put their city on the map, glorify their interior functions and canoodle the public with their rhetoric. The three adopt unusual, sometimes awkward geometries, to package their overall volumes, none of which is directly iconic of a single meaning but all of which allude to nature.

The Welsh Performing Arts Centre suggests a geological metaphor of banded courses as if it were a sedimentary stack of different slates laid down over millennia--in layers of purple, grey, blue and green stone. The Egyptian library sinks a circular disc partly in the ground and raises a larger section towards the heavens, an allusion to solar symbolism and solar gain, and with the angled gesture of cosmic observatory. The third example, a more sophisticated work of architecture, was originally perceived in the local Portuguese press as 'the diamond that fell from the sky', because the crystalline facets were transparent in the competition model. As built opaque it is now known as 'the meteorite from heaven', a white-cream polygon made from rectangles plus oblique triangles. Because of its seven-sided geometry and repetitive rhomboids, it is more like milky quartz than a meteor or diamond, but the point of such metaphors is not, primarily, denotation. It is the overall, natural connotations that matter, ones that are fresh here, slightly hostile and severe as nature can be and, importantly, ones that are transformed throughout the building.

I am not arguing that the cosmic references in such buildings act as precisely as the Christian iconography in a medieval cathedral. The point of the enigmatic signifier in an agnostic age is to be carefully suggestive, a distinct trace rather than a conventional denotation, an allusion rather than a clear sign. But I stick to my hypothesis that this trace is usual and, to a degree, inevitable in the emergent genre. If one is going to spend a fortune on a prominent and uncanny landmark, it is likely to have some iconography with cosmic overtones because these remain basic patterns and affecting images.

Whether the successful iconic buildings, in a decadent age, make up for the many failures is a matter of opinion, but the attempt to quash them with building codes and committees will not be fruitful. Creativity and pluralism are too strong for the architectural police. Rather, the policy might be to demand more thought on the iconography behind the buildings, more coherence in the use of metaphors, and the careful interweaving of many codes to neutralise those embarrassing mistakes that come with any high-risk venture.
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Author:Jencks, Charles
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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