Why Iconic Architecture Will Never Die

Even as star architecture and iconic buildings have taken their share of criticism in the design media in recent years, clients still prize showy projects

If you have followed design media for the last ten years, you will have noticed that the once admired icons of architecture, the buildings and their designers, have had a rough decade. About 15 to 20 years ago, many admirers of architecture, captivated by the ‘Bilbao Effect,’ were desirous of iconic architecture. Young architecture students were inspired by it, clients asked for it, and mayors everywhere saw it as a crucial part of city building. All of that giddiness changed when the Great Recession started, and even some commentators were chided for not offering a more critical assessment of the quality of architecture of the time.

Now, at least in design circles, the term iconic is a euphemism for flamboyant, excessive, grandiose architecture dropped down anywhere the 1% demands, and typically out of  scale and out of context. No socially conscious architect or design commentator wants to be associated with that. This change in perception has led to suggestions that the era of iconic architecture is over, think pieces about its decline, and even celebrations of its death. Others have declared iconic architecture to be ruining cities, and its cult figures, held responsible for this great urban sin.

The Ribbon Source-hassellstudio.com

The Ribbon Source-hassellstudio.com

Arterra Interactive - Darling Harbour - Grant Leslie Photography

Arterra Interactive – Darling Harbour – Grant Leslie Photography

The backlash forced some design enthusiasts, commentators, and even award juries, to step away from the significance of imagery and name recognition, but advocate for community oriented architecture. An architecture that is a tool for equality and social justice, rather than a corporate branding strategy. An architecture of substance and of place. An architecture for citizens, and not for the image of a city.

Despite the feelings about iconic architecture in the design industry, clients still clamor for it. Even as the idea of collaborations have over taken the notion of the master builder in terms of authorship, a love for iconic buildings remain. Icons, or architecture designed by iconic figures, are still popular real estate sellers in some of the world’s elite global cities. Regardless of the opinion of architectural intellectuals, iconic architecture never died. It just lost many close friends. Nevertheless, it still has many friends on social media, especially in our celebrity obsessed culture, where the image of architecture still matters. It is almost as if the architecture of the early 2000s saw that social media would soon play a huge role in the world, and was preparing itself to be photographed and shared like never before.

The Ribbon Source-hassellstudio.com

The Ribbon Source-hassellstudio.com

The Ribbon Source-grocon.com

The Ribbon Source-grocon.com

Even in the early and mid-aughts, when the often-cited ‘Bilboa Effect’ was in full swing, there were a few critiques of the vanity of iconic architecture, and some of their poorly constructed examples. The admiration for icons was resilient then, and it remains intact now.

There are dozens of examples that can be used from many countries that prove the continual construction of new iconic buildings. One that is worth mentioning is the Ribbon in Sydney, Australia. On three elevations, it looks like a butterfly with glass wings caught between two elevated motorways, but on one elevation, it resembles a disfigured toaster oven. Currently under construction, and scheduled to be completed in 2020, the Ribbon is a 25-storey, hospitality and retail project designed by HASSELL. On the developer’s website, the Ribbon is expected to “transform Sydney’s skyline and form an extraordinary new gateway to the western side of the city’s Central Business District.” That is developer marketing speak for iconic. Another popular word that gets used in these contexts is landmark, which does not carry the same baggage as iconic. Since landmark can be used by architectural preservationists to classify historic buildings, it creates ambiguity, and buys developers enough time to set the plans for an iconic building in motion before the public truly understands what is being proposed.

The Ribbon Source-hassellstudio.com

The Ribbon Source-hassellstudio.com

The Ribbon section Source-buildsydney.com

The Ribbon section Source-buildsydney.com

The Ribbon section Source-buildsydney.com

The Ribbon section Source-buildsydney.com

The Ribbon engineering Source-ridleyco.com

The Ribbon engineering Source-ridleyco.com

Along with retail spaces, there will be over 400 hotel rooms for the W hotel, over 140 serviced apartments, an IMAX theatre, an infinity pool overlooking Darling Harbour, and a rooftop bar. The project is being pushed by Grocon, one of Australia’s largest property developers. All the negativity around iconic architecture has not stopped a top luxury hotel brand, a top entertainment brand, nor a leading developer from embracing such a building.

The reality of commercial works of architecture such as the Ribbon, is that clients tend to want designs that will make them money by attracting the appropriate tenants. Beyond an address and interior spaces, a building that is a symbolic image is still easier to sell, than one that is not. No amount of architectural criticism, jury shunning, nor icon-shaming will change the desire that clients have for iconic architecture.


One Response to “Why Iconic Architecture Will Never Die”

  1. Anthony Sully says:

    Commercial gain can kill off architecture no matter how pleased a client may be. That pleasure is singular, but the visual onslaught and gross expenditure is a slap in the face to the public whose connection is zero. James Stevens Curl’s book ‘Making Dystopia’ says it all, and rightly condemns such buildings for their social detachment and monuments to greed of an uncaring ownership that has nothing to do with the sense of community their monsters deride.

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