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A round-up of this month’s new books about icons

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Ian Martin browses the latest architectural publications

Icon Origins, by Mannekin von Heineken. For years people have wondered where architectural icons come from. A site in the middle of town is cleared, hoarding goes up and a few months later a massive new building is revealed. Traditionally, the local paper encourages residents’ groups to declare ‘It’s so weird-looking, it’s like it landed here from outer space!’

Well, DID IT? This is just one of many questions von Heineken leaves reverberating in the air, unanswered. Others include ‘Did the icon evolve with advances in technology and increasing architectural sophistication? Or, improbable as it sounds, was the icon created by intelligent design?’ ‘Is there such a thing as The Missing Icon?‘ ‘Will the discovery of the so-called God Icon reveal new secrets of the universe?’ ‘What do YOU think?’ etc.

The Tall Story: How the Icon Narrative Changed the Way We Think About Icons and Narratives, by Bobby Weavingham. A fascinating examination of the icon narrative, and the impact that narrative has had on other narratives. These include societal narratives, global architectural narratives, and the author’s own vivid interior monologues.

Inevitably, some searching questions are asked. What is an icon? What is a narrative? And what happens when they’re smashed together in a 600-page large hadron collider of a book with lavish illustrations and a lofty foreword translated from the original Catalan? Fireworks, that’s what. Polemical fireworks.

We trace the icon narrative from the early years of icon-as-cultural nest egg, through the long, affluent ‘golden summer’ when the icon was popularised as an ironic investment signifier. Drawing heavily on his own research and lecture material, Bobby Weavingham, Google Professor of Narrative Studies at the University of Tamworth Online, brings us up to the present day with a bump.

The ‘icon-as-merely-icon narrative’ that prevails in our straitened, cautious times simply cannot endure, argues Weavingham. ‘The icon narrative is trapped in an ironic cycle of boom and bust. Architectural sarcasm may for the moment be invested in museums and opinion pieces, but what next? Can the icon rise again as the pre-eminent story arc for architecture? Only narrativised time will tell’.

The Magic Icon Book, by Taiwan Derivatives Inc. Stare long enough at these mystical pictures of icons and you’ll see a weird 3-D image of something interesting. Suspension of normal vision, a sense of fun and perseverence essential!

All Icons Great and Small, by Sally Puddock. Working as an impoverished young vet among bluff Yorkshire farming folk, Puddock discovered an unusual ‘psychic’ connection to animals. It was a gift that inevitably propelled her into the challenging world of architectural criticism. Creating a two-way rapport with buildings is difficult enough, but understanding icons is a rare facility indeed.

These days Puddock is of course familiar to TV viewers as the ‘Icon Whisperer’. In this book we follow her around the globe as she holds psychic conversations with world class landmarks and reveals some surprising aspects of their personalities. The Bilbao Guggenheim is ‘testy’, the Burj Dubai seems ‘sexually repressed’, while the Shard is really not very communicative at all.

Icon Revolution! by Isabel Quankermass. ‘In my excitable and menacing view, something huge and unpleasant is about to occur,’ warns Quankermass. In a novelised version of her own astonishing theory, she imagines a future [SPOILER ALERT] in which all the world’s icons become self-aware, form a deadly network of egregious landmarks and destroy Earth’s defenceless skylines.

The Great iConfidence Trick, by Grad Versatile. As an idealistic architecture student, Grad Versatile became fascinated with the icon phenomenon. ‘Everything about it. The form. The cultural voice. The application of a generic process to create something perversely less than the sum of its parts yet bigger than anything else for miles around. The designer lifestyle. The money. The power. What’s not to like?’

Then, after years of mixed fortune as a practising architect and casual gardener, Versatile changed his mind about icons. And architecture generally. Now he lifts the lid on his loathing for icons in a bitter, sparkling essay that’s sure to resonate with others who, for reasons beyond their control, have been excluded from the icon-designing jamboree. Kindle only.

Icons Ancient And Modern, by Various. A comprehensively updated edition of Famous Historical Buildings, from the Pyramids to the Gherkin, but with the word ‘ICON’ superimposed on all the photographs.

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