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 Deyan Sudjic / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
Dear Deyan26th 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…