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BOOK

The Iconic Building: The Power of Enigma By Charles Jencks.

Frances Lincoln, 2005.

224pp. £19.99

This is a strange publication; oddly ambivalent. Is it a serious survey of iconic architecture as the 'enigmatic signifier' of our times or a canter through some of the more headlinegrabbing designs that claim to symbolise our major cities?

Perhaps that's Jencks' point: the dichotomy between sensationalism and integrity.

The cover - a photomontage of Foster's 'Gherkin' blasting off into space - seems to hint at Jencks' own perspective, but an interview with Foster ends in an apparently unselfconscious discussion of 'the cosmic symbolism in its genesis'.

Jencks decries the fact that cities worldwide are all cynically pitching for a version of the Bilbao effect, in the process putting the thumbscrews on architects to deliver - at a stroke - new civic identities.

There is some discussion of the way in which landmark buildings act as catalysts for urban regeneration and can deliver significant economic transformation, but this is a slim volume and there is too much to cover. The result is a quick tour of some of the obvious 'iconic' candidates: the Sydney Opera House, Wright's Guggenheim Museum, Pei's pyramids at the Louvre.

Jencks takes a swipe at Piano's recent Parco della Musica in Rome, and plays it safe with Zaha Hadid's Cincinnati Arts Center ('utterly inevitable'). Along the way we find a series of doodles, which seem to debunk many of the schemes under consideration - a jocular fence-sitting at odds with his pronouncements that 'icons are best if they appeal to faiths, ideals, our better self'.

I would have liked more space devoted to the anti-icon - a paradox tellingly realised in Eisenman's recent Holocaust memorial in Berlin - as well as the icon-as-city, notably Le Corbusier's Chandigarh complex or Calatrava's remarkable City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, where the rigour and poetry of the structures both embrace and express the possibilities of community and culture.

Collective outrage clearly vetoed any possibility of the anti-icon as a response to the destruction of New York's Twin Towers. But the constraints of this book mean that Jencks can only sympathise with Libeskind's defeat in the face of Mammon, and pillory the outcome of a competition that said more about human avarice and the machinations of city planning than it's comfortable to contemplate. No accident, surely, that the preceding pages of this book are devoted to Le Corbusier's magical church at Ronchamp - a model of controlled and luminous form that must be the ultimate in iconic architecture: mystical, elevating, inspirational, delicate and robust, a 'temple to nature'.

At the end of The Iconic Building, faced by so many imponderables, Jencks (in desperation? ) dons his Darth Vader costume, crosses over to the Dark Side and pronounces that cosmogenesis, black holes, atoms, Gaia, and DNA are tomorrow's architectural drivers.

So there you have it: iconic architecture? 'May the Force be with you?' Robert Torday is head of communications at the Richard Rogers Partnership

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