Norman Foster's "gherkin" in London, Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim - is this the age of the iconic building? Or are they just expressions of political and architectural vanity? Two leading critics debate.by / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
26th March 2005
Over the last four years, you and other architectural critics have been regularly announcing the death of the iconic building—that Eiffel Tower for which every declining city yearns. Like Nikolaus Pevsner, who often proclaimed the terminal illness of movements he didn’t like, your description of historical change carries some heavy baggage.
You described in the Observer (26th October 2003) the attention-seeking structures of Will Alsop, Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava, and ended with an ominous prediction: “Perhaps, like art nouveau which flourished briefly at the end of the 19th century, the icon has become ubiquitous just as it is about to vanish.” Then, a year later (8th August 2004), you announced that this had now happened. Alsop’s Fourth Grace for Liverpool was cancelled, as was Daniel Libeskind’s V&A spiral. “The icon is all over,” you wrote, “and the very word has become too embarrassing to use.”
I can see why the “end of the iconic age” has made headlines and don’t doubt the distaste for what you and many British critics call “exhibitionistic iconic design.” It has obvious faults. Among these are the self-cancelling gestures that not only upstage each other but also destroy urban coherence. Moreover, these structures are often absurdly expensive and maladroit one-liners, turning the Thames, as one angry architect has dubbed it, into “the Costa del Icon.” Two other crimes are that it makes architecture a transitory fashion, and architects into celebrity chefs, confectioners who have to whip up ever greater wedding cakes, as did those hacks of Franco and Lenin.
Writing in this vein, the Scottish architectural historian Miles Glendinning has produced a polemic entitled The Last Icons: Architecture Beyond Modernism, in which he argues that: “We’re on the crest of a wave… ‘signature’ buildings… have had their day.” But such prediction confuses stylistic and cultural shifts with global economic forces—art nouveau with contemporary branding—and compounds the mistake by getting the history wrong. Pace Pevsner (and you), art nouveau was not a “transitory fact” any more than was his favoured functionalism: as a vital world movement it lasted some 10 years, about average for an international style.
We may disagree on the relative merits of styles. You favour the minimalism of John Pawson while I the maximalism of Frank Gehry, and I think you dance too soon on the grave of Libeskind’s V&A scheme. The architectural idea invented for the V&A, a concrete wall spiralling up on itself to become a mutually supporting structure, is an interesting new concept that will be built someday, to everybody’s benefit. But I often agree with your strictures against some iconic buildings—Calatrava’s concert hall in Tenerife, for instance, which you lampooned as “a gigantic representation of a Teddy boy quiff.” It is a ludicrous gesture, the one-liner of a dazzling white wave disguised as a cantilever solution—while in reality a prop is hidden under its flaccid curve.
Celebrity culture, along with competitive branding, is much more powerful than architectural taste. This may be regrettable, and I too applauded James Stirling when he refused to build entertainment architecture for the Disney Corp. But professional resistance will not change celebrity culture and will, more likely, impair a creative response to the situation, such as Gehry’s at Bilbao.
Competitive branding on a global scale was seen most recently with the usual “starchitects” fighting it out at ground zero, battering each other with their negative similes. The final pejorative metaphors decided the outcome, with the victor—Daniel Libeskind and his “trauma park” and “wailing wall”—only somewhat less unfortunate than Rafael Viñoly’s “twin skeletons in the sky with body parts flying between them.”
By contrast, a few artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, have embraced celebrity culture and the notion of branding, and some have designed iconic monuments: Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North and Thomas Heatherwick’s B of the Bang (outside the Manchester stadium where the starting pistol goes bang). These are knowing metaphors, if not very profound ones. In any case, they support the argument that icons are here to stay, and also suggest that a corresponding iconophobia will expand with their continued growth.
Missing from the debate so far is a comparison with previous landmark buildings. The Parthenon and Pantheon were obviously reductive monuments built by rulers to impress, control and delight their people, and a good part of the delight came from the interior ritual and art. Domical landmarks, such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Taj Mahal, still the most impressive iconic buildings, also remind us that one meaning of the icon concerns religious veneration.
The decline of religion is a key shift in the veneration of icons, but just as important is the decline in all ideologies and shared public belief systems. “Weak belief” characterises our global culture. The consequence of weak belief today in art, as Arthur Danto has argued, is that “anything can be art.” The analogy is true in architecture: anything can be an iconic building. Consider the Prada building in Tokyo, a $60m plastic “crystal” for shopping, or Birming-ham Selfridges, themed on the “tits and bums” of those trying on the clothes inside. The latter is next to a church, which it overpowers, and is as good a symbol of the way sexy-shopping has replaced religion as any Matthew Arnold could want.
The decline of belief and the growth of pluralism has led to the anomaly of icons without a socially sanctioned iconography. Indeed, given the way gestural metaphors create the icon—from Gehry’s “fish” at Bilbao to Calatrava’s “wave” at Tenerife—without any debate between client, society and architect, it is bound to lead to some crazy malapropisms. And this, understandably, leads many British architectural critics to iconophobia. Hence Miles Glendinning, in The Last Icons, argues for a return to a “hierarchy of decorum”—in effect a new social contract going back to the 18th century and its hierarchy of the genres and arts.
One only has to make the cultural assumptions of this clear to see that it is not about to happen. Belief in the church, monarchy and the social order, not to mention the ideologies that sustain them, is very weak in the populace. It is one thing to go to church for the ritual, for the art of celebrating first and last things, or on Christmas Day, but few people believe in a creator God. If they somehow believe in the God of the big bang, they do so with many caveats and tortured arguments that their conviction can only be described as idiosyncratic and intellectual, not social and strong. You and I, Deyan, may deplore parts of this situation with its dictatorship of the brands and its ludicrous one-liners, its celebrity journalism and Damien Hirsts, with its supermarkets leapfrogging their lowly station in life to become cathedrals of commerce. But these are social and economic shifts much larger than architecture. Beyond this they produce buildings, as in Gehry’s Guggenheim gallery in Bilbao, that regenerate the economy of a city and sometimes are even what the local people and the client want. Given this reality, negative criticism falsely diagnosing death is hardly helpful for the profession: it needs to find out what makes a good iconic building and why.
18th April 2005
You are right to say that there is a difference between the cult of celebrity—and all that goes with it in its architectural incarnation—and questions of architectural taste.
The taste issue seems much the less interesting of the two. You have your own predilections, I have mine, and they probably coincide more often than either of us might expect. But it is not the job of an architecture critic to be a policeman of taste. I believe that our purpose is to try to provide some sense of what is really happening in the world of architecture. To that end, we will get further if we concentrate on what buildings mean, rather than how they look. What we are talking about is the lust to build monuments, landmarks or icons, and what has provoked it. There is of course no single answer, but none of the likely ones offer much cause for comfort. You slip in the Bilbao word in search of justification. But to suggest that this is a case of a city rescued from oblivion by a single miraculous piece of architecture is a travesty. Yet it is a travesty that is accepted without question by countless city boosters from Taiwan and Guadalajara to Edinburgh. Part of the reason, I think, is that it offers a simple solution to a complex problem. When finance for redeveloping London comes from Hong Kong, Milan and Seattle, or Beijing is rebuilt by American capital, it needs to be channelled into projects that can instantly be grasped by businessmen who do not or cannot understand the complexities and subtleties of the city they are working in. It leads to projects that have the same relationship to an authentic, multilayered city as Starbucks does to a family-run Milanese espresso bar.
Guggenheim-style architectural icons do the same thing on an urban level. Anybody can hire one of the 30 or so architects who are building high-profile architecture in so many places. And most of them can succeed in producing an instantly recognisable icon that is going to end up as the backdrop for car commercials.
But how long-lasting that icon is, or how appropriate it is as a concert hall or an art gallery, are other questions. To be sceptical about the Bilbao phenomenon does not mean undervaluing Frank Gehry’s creative achievement. But as the resignation of the Guggenheim’s remarkably generous chairman (having poured $77m into the museum’s endowment) would suggest, this strategy is viewed as questionable even within the Guggenheim organisation itself.
Nor is the phenomenon of the high-profile pilgrimage site a new one. From Santiago de Compostela to the holy cities of the Shias, sacred relics of one kind or another have been fought over as the basis for trade and tourism for at least two millennia.
And it was a far less benign administration than the Basque government which can lay claim to have first made explicit what in modern times has come to be known as the “Bilbao effect.” When Germany’s finance minister Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk attempted to hold down spending on the rebuilding of Berlin in the 1930s, Hitler told Albert Speer to ignore him. “If the finance minister could only realise what a source of income to the state my buildings will be in 50 years. Remember what happened with Ludwig II. Everyone said he was mad because of the cost of his palaces. But today, most tourists go to upper Bavaria solely to see them. The entrance fees alone have long since paid for the building costs. The whole world will come to Berlin to see our buildings.”
Alongside Hitler and Speer there were Stalin and Boris Iofan, with their ill-fated attempt to give Moscow the Palace of the Soviets. And Mussolini of course. But there are so many others too. During the kleptocratic rule of her husband, Imelda Marcos collected would-be architectural icons with almost as much enthusiasm as she acquired shoes. Saddam Hussein got very close to hiring Robert Venturi to build the biggest mosque in the world, but at the last moment decided to invade Iran instead. He carpeted Iraq with palaces in the hope of intimidating his country with a series of landmarks that reflected Stalin and Nebuchadnezzar in equal parts. The list goes on. Nelson Rockefeller made Wallace Harrison tear the guts out of Albany to build him a Brasília on the Hudson and create an imperial state capital for New York as therapy for his lost presidential ambitions. Or there was Jacques Attali, the first chair- man of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, who spent four times as much on lining his offices with marble as he disbursed in his first year to the pauper states of eastern Europe.
I labour the point not to suggest that building the Sydney Opera House, or the spiral at the V&A, or even Will Alsop’s Fourth Grace in Liverpool is to be equated with fascism or megalomania. But I do think it helps to demonstrate that there are old roots that go back to the fear of death and of hubris and vanity underlying the wave of exhibitionistic architecture that we see.
25th April 2005
I understand why you are against iconic buildings. Ludwig II, Hitler, Ferdinand Marcos, Mussolini, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Nebuchadnezzar—with a list of megalomaniacs like this, anyone might prefer a little British understatement. But your list is a form of architectural intimidation, and you admit that the Basque government hardly belongs with these characters. In any case, your argument might be more relevant if it concerned those clients who are commissioning iconic buildings today: the Valencia and Tenerife governments asking Calatrava to follow Gehry’s Bilbao effect; the Chinese government hiring Rem Koolhaas for a China Central Television (CCTV) building that has the same magic; Swiss Re commissioning Norman Foster’s “gherkin” to be the number one skyscraper in London; the Scottish parliament… and so on. It isn’t dictators today who are making the running, but city administrators hoping to turn around the fortunes of their rustbelt modernism and reinvent themselves as postmodern centres of creativity.
As to the Bilbao effect, the figures are enough to make Ken Livingstone turn green. By 1998, after being open for one year, the Guggenheim had added an extra 1.3m visitors to the city. The second year a further 1.1m came, and of these architectural pilgrims, 87 per cent were from outside the Basque region. In two years, tourist spending increased by over $400m, enough to finance four new Guggenheims. Other countries heard these figures and fell over each other to replicate the effect. While it is true most of them failed, that is no reason for concentrating only on the failures.
If the iconic building is here to stay for such economic and social reasons, including the waning of traditional religious and political ideals, then we have to distinguish good from bad ones, and learn how to design better ones. There are two obvious strategies. Design multiple meaning into form, so that the architecture is not the one-liner that so many deplore; and relate the form to things that matter—today that means nature, among other referents. In effect, to make the icons convincing we need a new iconography.
The first strategy is already well at work in the mixed metaphors that characterise the new genre. Take the so-called “gherkin” of Swiss Re. It is less the phallic pickle that this euphemism intended than the slightly sinister “missile” or “spiral screw” of its helical skycourts. As Norman Foster himself insists, many functional and environmental determinants disciplined the shape, which was initially based on a “stretched egg.” But there are other natural referents as well, such as the Fibonacci spirals of the “pineapple and pinecone,” and a “pointing finger.” None of these metaphors is too explicit, and some of them work against each other to give the enigmatic form a certain charge. For instance, the military overtones contrast with the cosmic and naturalistic ones and it is this combination that characterises iconic buildings today. Like the Eiffel Tower of 1889, the new icon carries negative implications in dialogue with positive ones, and that is why so much of the public loves, and hates, such buildings and why journalists write about them.
I see Foster’s building as the “cosmic skyscraper” because of the way its pointed dome challenges the heavens, as well as St Paul’s—a reason why the cathedral’s dean deplored it at first—and the way London can be seen from its top floor, in a 360-degree sweep of sky and landscape. The views are as breathtaking as those Wren provided hundreds of years ago, incidentally also topping them with a spiralled pineapple. Cosmic indeed! It is the transcendence of Christian symbols by natural metaphors.
Scratch any of today’s iconic buildings hard and they will bleed nature imagery. The Scottish parliament has its references to “silver fish” swimming in a shoal, to “leaves and curved bodies” and a host of geological images that give Scotland identity, above all its “rock outcrops and finger lakes.” Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters for the Chinese government has more purely architectural references than natural ones, but it is not hard to find the “dog and doughnut,” the “spider web” and “interlocking hands” (especially since he underlines the last image with one bit of applied symbolism). Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles makes use of fish and body metaphors, as at Bilbao.
Such mixed metaphors greet every iconic building today, in praise and damnation, and it is up to critics like you to distinguish the benign from the malign inventions, not to consign the genre to the dustbin—where it refuses to stay.
27th April 2005
Thankfully, there are fewer authoritarian governments around than there used to be. That did not stop Rem Koolhaas storming off in search of what he calls “strong governments” like the one in Beijing prepared to build his leaning towers for China’s state broadcaster, after several of his American projects were cancelled. And it didn’t stop you from taking part in the competition jury that selected Koolhaas’s CCTV design.
Would I have joined that jury if I’d been asked? And if I were an architect as gifted as Koolhaas, would I have accepted the job of designing the building if I had been offered it? Almost certainly, yes. But the fact that we are all of us prepared at times to ignore the obvious and to concentrate only on what we want to see does not mean that we should talk about buildings just in terms of their use of metaphor, or only from the point of view of their architect. We must understand them as a totality.
Undoubtedly, CCTV headquarters will be an extraordinary building, a tribute to all the architects and engineers who designed it, and to the tens of thousands of migrant labourers who will build it, working round the clock for $10 a day, living in windowless shacks on the site for a year at a time. It is an intelligent and knowing design. Certainly it is technically demanding. Possibly it might end up looking extremely ugly. It’s too early to tell. But it will also play a part in persuading us that China is a society run by a regime that is more open to dissent than it really is.
We may have fewer dictators, but we now have local authorities run by democratically elected city politicians who want to follow in the footsteps of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria and indulge their edifice complexes, claiming the Bilbao effect as their justification. But they bring little understanding of what they are doing, either culturally or financially, to their building campaigns, hence the fiasco over Liverpool’s waterfront—even if it is hard to shed tears for Alsop’s deadpan slapstick Fourth Grace. The result is a generation of architects whose creed is nothing more subtle than the freedom to follow the dictates of their genius, and too many politicians who want to follow François Mitterrand’s example and spend other people’s money on building a personal mausoleum masquerading as a national library.
I am surprised that you keep citing Bilbao as an economic success story to prove the continuing health of the architectural icon. In fact Bilbao demonstrates the opposite. You are quite wrong to say that the museum added an extra 1.3m visitors to the city in 1998. That was the total figure for all visits to the museum in its first year, which includes all the locals who went and all the multiple visits. Within three years even that 1.3m had dropped to 975,000, suggesting that people get jaded pretty quickly with a museum that has nothing more to offer than sensational architecture. It needs content. And that was a lesson that might have been learned from the American Centre in Paris, also designed by Gehry, which closed as soon as it opened because the building had consumed all the institution’s resources.
Nor is it true to say that the world is falling over itself to build more Guggenheims. As Peter Lewis said before he quit, if it is such a good idea to be spending all our time doing feasibility studies for new museums, then why isn’t the Metropolitan Museum of Art doing it? Apart from Deutsche Bank’s use of the Guggenheim name in Berlin, none of the new Guggenheims proposed after Bilbao have worked, and two have closed. In Taichung, a Taiwanese city with no international airport, the local councillors mutinied against a crack-brained scheme to open a branch there to attract Japanese tourists. In Rio, opponents of the mayor went to court to block Jean Nouvel’s underwater museum, pointing out that Rio already has plenty of tourists, as well as an extremely impressive museum of modern art.
I think the icon’s days are numbered because the very process that created the cult will finally destroy it. The relentless publicity, the over-exposure of the image of the Guggenheim and of Gehry, or Koolhaas, or anybody else you care to name, will turn them from the next big thing into old hat, which is just what the architectural icon has become. There is more to architecture than being the next big thing.
4th May 2005
We can agree that many iconic buildings are failed one-liners built under repressive situations. But these examples hardly exhaust the new genre, which is here to stay. Despite the relative decline in tourists, the fact is that Gehry’s “Bilbao effect” quickly paid for the building four times over. And journalists like you continue to feature these buildings, year after year. Far from becoming old hat, the best work of Gehry, Koolhaas and Eisenman is never far from your discerning eyes. Why? Because of the way it uses multiple metaphors in a provocative manner that elicit your continued response. These mixed signs are “enigmatic signifiers,” and ever since the Eiffel Tower was first hated, and then loved, they have come to dominate the iconic building. I don’t doubt your first negative response to these creative monuments, but I would ask you to see them as part of a larger picture, at least partly intended by the architect. As cutting-edge artists have shown over the last century, the cut of the new may hurt, but it is not the main point. And with the new iconic buildings, you will always find amid the multiple metaphors several which point to a relationship with nature or the cosmos. That is their hidden code, the iconography of the iconic building that asks to be found.
4th May 2005
Of course the point about Bilbao is the fact that visitor numbers have dropped. And I am glad you now accept that is what happened, rather than swallowing Guggenheim propaganda. It shows how quickly creative ideas are consumed and spat out.
We are all guilty, you too, of helping the process along, once the celebrity bandwagon has passed. When was the last time you looked at, or wrote about the work of Michael Graves, the prince of postmodernism whose designs once moved you so much? He is still busy, still a talent, but critically invisible.
You link the icon phenomenon to your personal pursuit of the elusive metaphor, a pursuit which at times I have to confess leaves me wondering if I am trapped in the pages of The Da Vinci Code. As a means for understanding the nature of architecture, the metaphor is certainly no panacea. It concentrates on the tiny area of resistance that an architect can hope to introduce into a design, rather than the vastly larger field of what really shapes architecture.