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The truth about icons

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ajenda - As the six projects shortlisted for the Stirling Prize are revealed this week, making them contenders for iconic status, Charles Jencks considers the fact that, whether architects like it or not, icons are here to stay, and discusses what they are

Icons, the iconic building, the icon on your computer, the eye-con, iconoclasm are all here to stay, whether we like it or not (and a lot of people, especially architects, don't). Take the destruction of the Twin Towers, a classic piece of architectural and political iconoclasm, as focused in its way as that which the Muslims achieved in Istanbul at St Sophia, when they converted the church of Eastern Christendom. As long as we build expressions of faith - and even in the marketplace there is some faith - they will be shot down by others of counter-faith, and just as all the Roman coins and buildings were erased and transformed as Christian icons, so too our successors will have the job of rewriting history as they re-mint our images.

Al Qaeda aimed at the World Trade Center on more than one occasion because, as the critic Marina Warner has pointed out, it was a very good icon of money-making. Not only did its functions, height and reduction to a silver sign all say this loud and clear, but so too did the double verticals which resembled the almighty $-sign (from which my computer, iconoclast that it is, subtracts one vertical).

The Twin Towers, as built, were rather kitsch versions of stainless-steel Gothic.

But, destroyed, they became double icons:

first, the exploding images were those that empowered Bush the Warrior; and, second, the standing fragments of wall became icons that stood for a determined, but wounded, America. Then the whole world, for the first time in history, voted on rebuilding the icons in the competition between many, including Foster, Meier, the Think Team and Libeskind. The latter won the battle because his metaphors (of 'Memory Foundations' and 'Wedge of Light', among others) were more cogent than his opponents', particularly the Think Team solutions, which were lampooned as 'skeletons in the sky'. For families of the victims, this icon was an obvious malapropism. No wonder most architects dislike the iconic building: who wants to be dismissed by a journalistic one-liner or an errant metaphor?

Hence, among architects at least, we might be on the verge of a new iconophobia.

We might pause and take stock of this situation because the iconic building is here to stay, as long as 'fashion-celebrity syndrome' dominates global culture; the profession needs to take a more complex position than easy critique.

Slaves to fashion As so many architects and critics have said since the early 1960s, the problems with the iconic building are three: each icon upstages the previous one, just as this year's fashion drives out last year's; it destroys the urban totality - its meaning, fabric and history;

and it produces zany one-liners whose shelflife is one bullet-point long.

This negative critique of Iconitis Rampitis is more or less correct. As a result of the present taste, and the way large chunks of the environment are commissioned by competitive corporations, many prime cities are turning into fragmenting World Fairs. Shanghai and Las Vegas, the fastest-growing in their respective countries, are where the virus is at its most rampant, a disease where each building denies the existence of its neighbour, where street and urban continuity are destroyed, where propriety is gone and the whole is less than the sum of its parts (except from a helicopter, or the city's tallest landmark, where the spectacle is really quite exciting).

One problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that we have heard it all before, and not only from Walter Gropius, who attacked 'Playboy architecture' (as he was designing London's Playboy Club). The diatribe against the corruption of present taste goes back to Vitruvius and the 1st century BC. In a chapter on wall decoration in his On Architecture, he mounts his attack, one from which later criti ques derive: those of St Bernard, Vasari, Bellori and Winckelman, to name a few, or, more recently, Pevsner and Deyan Sudjic. In his book Norm and Form, Gombrich discusses the noble pedigree of this prefabricated anger, and how each critic adds his particular take on corruption. Vitruvius was concerned with illogical structure and the day's Expressionism - that is, stucco monsters, unnatural elements, chimera, etc.

He faults the way this style had undermined his preferred Minimalism, the good taste of the Greeks, which he laments has been disdained as too boring: 'On these lines the new fashions compel bad judges to condemn good craftsmanship for dullness.' He concludes on the corrupting influence: 'When people view these falsehoods, they approve rather than condemn.' The truth is often boring and clichÚd, and the fact that Vitruvius' negative opinions have tended to be repeated for 2,000 years is no reason to dismiss them. No, the grounds for critiquing the critique are more compelling. They concern the fact that professional censorship, in a global culture of competitive late-capitalism, has little effect on society and, worst of all for the profession, it fails to prepare architects mentally for the competitive stakes, failing to train them how to create better iconic buildings.

However, respect is due to the architects that refuse to take part - Jim Stirling turning down Disney's offer to build Entertainment Architecture in the 1980s, for example. An individual can withdraw from a dubious situation, morally, even if the profession has to engage with it.

A recent critique A small part of why those who critique iconic building might become more self-aware can be seen in Graham Morrison's recent 'look at me!' - his take on how 'landmark buildings are ruining our cities' - a speech first given at the annual Bovis/AJ Royal Academy awards dinner and later reprinted here, as well as in the Guardian. As he rightly points out, three iconic landmarks - the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and the new Scottish Parliament - initially met with disapproval. That is true, and he likes them, but he fails to comment on what is an important aspect of the initial revulsion. The aspect, which for instance Will Alsop and Frank Gehry do understand, being that the iconic building must carry a negative charge, a paranoia that challenges contemporary taste, a disturbing value, and something new. Of course, its quality depends on much more than this paranoia, but any discussion of the new building type that doesn't address the successful deformation of codes is not worth having.

We have to go back to the Modernists of the 19th century, and particularly to the Surrealists of the 1910s, to understand the rules of rule-breaking - something way beyond the confines of this short article, but the upsetting presence of the formless, the unknown, the undomesticated is an essential part of the good iconic building, and one doesn't get close to it with habitual critiques.

Secondly, and to continue with Morrison's critique, he says 'there is little evidence to suggest that architecture in the form of a single gesture can really [boost a city's economy]. Without easyJet, it is far from certain that the small economic gains in Bilbao would be measurable at all.' Well, the fact is easyJet does matter, and if he had bothered to research the figures for Bilbao, Morrison might have changed his conclusions on Gehry and the urban role of the iconic building.

The new Guggenheim, according to market researchers given the job of finding out the effect of the building, added an extra 1.3 million visitors to the city the first year it was finished in 1998 and 1.1 million the second - and of these architectural pilgrims, 87 per cent were foreign to the area. They directly increased the tourist spending by more than $400 million (£223 million) in two years, thus in effect paying for four new Guggenheims.Many cities heard about these figures and so were falling over each other trying to grab a new 'Bilbao effect'. While it is true that most of them failed, that is no reason for concentrating only on the failures. We want to know why some iconic buildings are successful, how these ones are resonant with meaning and how they bring off the gamble, because cities are now in a competitive race to reinvent their destinies with architecture. Even where the results are undeniably vulgar and preposterous, let us not forget that Venice and Amsterdam were cities founded on such conspicuous consumption, which is to say we need a more nuanced approach to the subject.

When Morrison goes for Alsop's 'Cloud' in Liverpool, which he condemns as 'a blob dressed up as art', his censure is aimed at a particular building type: the office building that puts on airs way beyond its social status.

It is true that today all building types are trying to attract attention beyond their station, like miscreants on Big Brother, but Alsop's now-ditched Fourth Grace was not a simple office building. Rather it was a hybrid structure trying to resuscitate a waterfront area by having multiple functions: a five-star hotel, a museum, a public office run by Apple and a public garden, all open to visitors without charge.

Yes, the AT&T was an iconic office building, like the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe, and, yes, the 'erotic gherkin' is a more striking dome than that of St Paul's (which it upstages), but do we really want, as Morrison suggests, to 'defer' today to a Christian past, and a national symbol, when Christianity and nationhood are so confused?

Putting that rhetorical question to the side brings me to his last point, which is praise for 'the iconic designs that get it right':

that is, Alsop's plan for Goldsmiths College, Richard Rogers Partnership's Leadenhall Street scheme, the London Eye and a Jerez culture centre by Herzog & de Meuron.

These are apparently 'in keeping with their surrounding without compromising architectural integrity' - or 'true icons'.

The problems with this list are obvious. What is a greater non sequitur in its context than the London Eye, a marvellous 19th-century structure that absolutely blows away all its neighbours? Defend it on other grounds, but certainly not for being 'in keeping'. The Jerez building is also interesting, but not iconic in the accepted sense;

and Rogers' scheme 'brilliantly deferring to St Paul's'? Whether it does so for most people is unclear - and architectural propriety invoked without consulting the people is an old trick of Prince Charles - but it is time to face the more difficult and unpopular assumptions about 'deference'.

Icons to what?

The unpleasant truth of 'fashion-celebrity syndrome' is that it spurns deference. Just as Margaret Thatcher ushered in a 'culture of contempt', where traditional roles were denied, the Civil Service undermined, the universities and professions treated with disdain (no surprise Oxford refused to honour her), so today customary social relationships are even more suspect. People do not honour the same gods, very few go to church, most people are suspicious of hierarchies, and values are put at the mercy of the marketplace and power. It was always thus, many will respond, and, moreover, today's pluralism and suspicion are a good thing - witness Iraq and spin.

There are good arguments in favour of and against this cultural situation. But the confusion of public symbolism stems from the conflicts inherent in global culture, and it is the uncertainty behind this symbolism that is at the heart of the icon controversy.

If one could face the deeper issue of a contemporary iconography, the problem of the iconic building would be solved, but there are very good historical reasons why architects, like artists, shy away from this question.

Architects such as Morrison are inheritors of a Modernist tradition that sublimates iconography to technique and abstraction, process and function, programme and ideology. That is, they do not follow the older traditions and ask about choice of subject matter, ask the questions: 'What should a building mean?'; 'In what style should it be?'; 'What associations should it have?';

and 'What iconography should it adopt?' These deeper existential questions, and freedoms, were subsumed within the dominant discourses of Modernism and traditional society.

Thus 'deference' to St Paul's is assumed as a virtue because it is a longstanding part of a building code - the power and appropriateness of the church as symbol of the nation, city and polity is not questioned, in spite of the fact that very few people even pretend to believe in God. Architects defer because they are pragmatic and are told to bow to planning regulations.

In this light, one can understand the negative logic of the outrageous iconic building.

It is a sign asking: 'Who wants to defer to outmoded symbols, especially in an age of celebrity that honours only notoriety? Why can't architects do what artists do, what the 'Sensation' show did at the Royal Academy?

Why should designers genuflect to power and position, when other artistic professions do the reverse?' As Ruskin would ask, do we want to make slaves of our architects - one law for artists, writers and the culturati, and a subservient place for designers?

Obviously the 'iconic architects' - an interesting phrase I owe to Alsop - answer in the negative. Rogers, Foster, Isozaki, Meier, Gehry, Eisenman, Koolhaas, Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Libeskind, Calatrava? shall we continue with the usual suspects down the shortlist of the typical international competition, or does everyone in the global city work to the same list? Because it is iconic.

Such architects dominate the global media because they produce amazing, sometimes outstanding and often interesting landmarks that defer to themselves. Having looked at about 70 iconic buildings in some detail, their iconography is heterodox, referring when it does so to any conceivable thing, any hook it can grasp on to. This work is often very good, as is Gehry's at Bilbao, and if there are codes behind it all then they are largely implicit and hidden.

However, there is indeed a new shared convention at work here, the enigmatic sign and the common trace behind the many puzzling and emergent shapes. What these strange forms often share is a reference to nature, the patterns of the cosmos, the forces of material production whether artificial or living. This may be only one set of signifiers among many that the iconic building underwrites, but it is present and typical of our time, as unmistakable a trace as the Christian cross was an icon of a former period.

Not every architect will subscribe to either the Green agenda or 'cosmogenesis', but if you scratch an iconic building hard enough, it bleeds the enigmatic patterns underlying nature, and celebrates them.

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