How much should architecture be about marketing? That is the heart of what Graham Morrison was asking at the Royal Academy last week.
Setting out to create an icon is always a selling proposition. The measure of success should be, in part, whether the selling succeeds. This knowingness is relatively new and makes us uncomfortable. The Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, both quoted approvingly by Morrison, were never expected to have the importance they finally achieved.
It was with Gehry and the Guggenheim in Bilbao that this selfconscious making of icons took off. Marks Barfield managed it with the London Eye and so did Ian Ritchie with his Dublin Spire. One reason these two projects are so successful is that they have a very simple agenda, rather than the complexities and compromises involved in trying to combine iconic status with a proper functioning building.
We have also come to expect our iconic buildings to be arts-related but, with the end of the Lottery boom, icon-makers have to turn to another building type. For health and education buildings to be subservient to statement-making seems immoral. Housing is not usually suited to the creation of icons, although there are exceptions such as Goldfinger's Trellick Tower in London or some of Ricardo Bofill's arrogant Paris housing.
Which leaves the office: a straightforwardly commercial building type, which is part of what distresses Morrison.
Again, there is a history of offices becoming iconic. In London we have the initially reviled Centre Point; in the US, Johnson Wax and the Seagram building. Foster's Swiss Re and planned projects like Piano's London Bridge Tower are well-considered buildings by architects who are not just rolling out variations on a theme. But the trouble with towers is that their iconic status is closely related to their height; build above them and they will be supplanted. So Morrison is right in two senses when he says we can't have too many icons: we don't want them and most won't achieve that status. Which should reconcile plenty of clients to settling for the 'normative buildings' that he is so keen to continue designing.