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Taming those troublesome icons

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In his opening speech at the AJ/Bovis Awards, Graham Morrison criticised the public's relentless appetite for iconic architecture and offered a new definition of the 'bad icon'

'I want to start by taking a position. I am suspicious of architecture that makes pompous claims for itself. I think a design that sets out with the conscious intention of being iconic is unworthy.And I think a prerequisite of a good design is that it contributes to its context.

'Designers have been falling over themselves to apply the iconic treatment to every imaginable building type. The trouble with these new icons is discriminating between those that are worthy and those that are not.

We must be clear that their impact will be both lasting and beneficial. If they are going to be visible, they have to be good.

'These icons are becoming our new landmarks. Obvious examples are the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and even the new Scottish Parliament building.

'There is, however, a second group, which try very hard to be like the first but suffer from the fact their public importance is less obvious. They are the less significant building types and may not always deserve the profile their sponsors demand. This is the group I wish to focus on. This is where, in my view, the trouble with icons lies.

'Here I have to mention the very significant effect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Though I am not convinced that it is a great work of architecture, it is firmly in the first category as its public credentials are clear. With Bilbao, 'celebrity architecture' in all its low-cut and high-rise disguises had come of age. It was certain to be followed by a torrent of imitators.

'As it happened, the launch of the Guggenheim coincided with a new public appetite for the 'bling-bling' architectural image. A competition had developed for this attention and, as this increased, each image had to be more extraordinary and shocking in order to eclipse the last. Each new design had to be instantly memorable; more iconic. It was, and is, a fatuous and self-indulgent game.

'Our cities are made of a tradition of normative buildings that form our streets and lanes, our squares and avenues. These familiar spaces, the public realm, are more valuable to us than any individual building.

It is the quiet strength of their normality that allows the icon to be special.We need to look at the city as a whole, and no icon should leave it worse off.

'Everyone talks about the Bilbao effect;

about how one remarkable building can change the perception and boost the economy of a city. But we are short of evidence for the claim that architecture in the form of a single gesture, however theatrical, can have such restorative powers. Without easyJet, it is far from certain that the small economic gains in Bilbao would be measurable at all.

But now every failing town or institution has thoughts about some kind of architectural icon that they hope will be their salvation.

They are seeking an elixir.

'It is as if they were the gullible recipients of those 'medicines' dispensed by the Victorian quack doctors whose drugs were spiked with alcohol and gave only temporary and illusory comfort to the afflicted.

'At the London Metropolitan University on Holloway Road in north London, the elixir has been dispensed by Daniel Libeskind. The new graduate centre is a further development of the crumpled thinking seen earlier at the V&A. Despite the far-fetched claims of his website for the origin of his concept, the design is little more than a cultural placebo, a distraction, which quite possibly, in failing to deal with the real organisational issues of the university, inherited from decades of poor estate management, may do more long-term damage than good.

'Another example is a proposal for a new office building. The office building is the true chameleon of our time.We have seen it mutate from a Miesian 'ideal' into a PostModern palace, into a High-Tech machine, into organic forms, and now into blobs dressed up as art. Strangely, for a building type so concerned with efficiency, these changes in its skin are rarely market or customer-led. They are, more often than not, driven simply by the need to get planning approval.

'The latest example of this mutation is the chiselled object of angular art. We saw this at London Bridge, where the planning inspector applauded Renzo Piano's assembly of glass shards and hailed it as an artistic success. It has now been followed, with almost Darwinian predictability, by the proposal for Elizabeth House at Waterloo.

'If the confused assembly of 'doughnuts on sticks' in Liverpool, known inexplicably as The Cloud, is regarded as its 'Fourth Grace', then the proposal at Waterloo must be Cinderella's ugly sister. This domineering, elephantine project of 100,000m 2is made entirely of glass and is claimed to reflect light in a way that is varied and beautiful. Enormous it is, beautiful it is not.

'So, in my view, there are good icons and bad icons, and for the latter I offer a new definition for our architectural lexicon. A bad icon is 'the built representation of an unsupportable claim, a meaningless or pompous gesture, which exceeds the reasonable representation of its content, initiated either by vanity or expedience, in which the efficient working of its accommodation is compromised and the context in which it is built is left worse off '. That is the trouble with icons.'

This is an edited version of the speech. For the full transcript, visit www. ajplus. co. uk


'If there is a trouble with icons it is that we can't produce enough of them to reflect our age and energise our cities. Iconic status is not ours to give; it comes from a public that recognises such resonance in buildings. However, a prerequisite is that architects attempt to put up buildings that may resonate.

'Graham Morrison would have us return to a time when buildings knew their place in the pecking order. Housing and offices were to be the dull bits in between more important public buildings. But the world of hierarchies has gone. Home, work and shopping are now as, or possibly more, important in people's lives. Architecture should be truthful to this condition.

Anyway, our cities are already at full capacity for dull infill.

'We actually build much less now. We should take any opportunity to redress the balance with buildings that celebrate architecturally every use that goes into making the modern city.

'The most breathtakingly ingenuous of Morrison's claims is that architects are trying to produce exciting buildings to make it easier to tempt clients and get planning permission.

However, his practice proves the opposite proposition of producing vast anodyne GM Modernism - genetically modified to remove any ideology (looks like Modernism but tastes of nothing) - which is wholly successful with safety-first planners and big anodyne developers.

'To sit on a table at the Royal Academy with such brilliantly inventive architectural talents as Peter Cook, Will Alsop and Amanda Levete, whose entire built works in Britain could fit easily into Morrison's latest overscaled planning permission, and listen to his reactionary justification for such mediocrity, was truly sickening.

'He also gratuitously denigrated Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, suggesting that any success brought to the city was only provided by easyJet. But then it is hard to imagine anyone getting on any type of plane to anywhere to visit any building by his practice.

'The last time this ideology of mediocrity was rampant we got Thamesmead, Milton Keynes and Croydon. Happily, many architects are now driven beyond what is comfortable to achieve to try to celebrate and adorn our inherited cities with additions that speak of the modern world and its possibilities. If some of these efforts appeal enough to become icons, so much the better. Not to at least try is literally hopeless.'

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