Review: The Iconic Building | icon 026 | August 2005

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words Justin McGuirk

Charles Jencks’ latest book reinforces the idea of architecture as picture. But ultimately it’s just finding shapes in clouds.

The architecture critic these days has to be a dab hand with a metaphor. Buildings have become literary challenges, and it just won’t do to resort to popular monikers like “gherkin”; the poor critic must set the standard, the Swiss Re tower must be a disembodied shin “wearing giant Argyle socks”. Or, according to the infantile cover of Charles Jencks’ new book, it is a rocket erupting into flight. The liquid-hydrogen-fuelled metaphor was presumably more acceptable for a dust jacket than the battery-operated one.

The iconic building, Jencks argues, is an inexorable feature of the new paradigm in architecture, and metaphors are one way by which the genre is to be judged. Tracing the emergence of the icon from early examples such as the AT&T building and the Sydney Opera House to the multitude that have risen since the Bilbao Guggenheim, Jencks is never afraid to discuss a building in terms of its figural associations. This is brave of him because it leaves him open to accusations of triviality – one that I will make myself in due course – but it also has a certain integrity, since image is the very substance of his argument.

Unlike for so many architects and critics, for Jencks, the icon is not a regrettable development in contemporary architecture. Rather than hollow, egotistical formalism,
it represents a freeing of the imagination; it is the inevitable generation of a new symbolic language in the absence of religion or any prevailing ideology. As architecture’s pre-eminent trendspotter, Jencks wants to write the rules of the icon. It is time for him to tell us what it is and what makes a good or bad one. He tries to be dispassionate, but then this will happen: “This rocket inspires a kind of cosmic awe that makes Christianity look a bit like yesterday’s faith”.

Of course, not all “icons” demand such reverence: Calatrava’s Tenerife concert hall is “one of the biggest empty gestures in architectural history”. In fact, to give Jencks credit, his analysis is often spot on. He is very good at decoding a building’s denotations and connotations, or, for instance, explaining exactly why Foster’s Reichstag dome succeeds as a symbol while the “testicle” of City Hall fails. But his approach is avowedly reductivist: his definition of an icon is a symbol reduced to something so essential that potential metaphors (vegetables, animals, body parts) proliferate. He calls it “the enigmatic signifier” – the more things it can look like, the better it is.

This is architecture as picture, or as cartoon (and Madelon Vriesendorp’s cartoons are used as illustrations throughout). The very term “icon” is flattening, and Jencks’ whole critique can be made by looking at photographs in magazines. Much of this architecture is economy driven, a form of branding that relies on the instant persuasion of the advert. Jencks will say as much, and then tackle a building on those very terms.

Sometimes we forget, and I think Jencks does, that buildings are not just for the eyes. Good architecture has to feel and act like good architecture, and no matter how it looks on the page, it can fail in the inhabiting and disappoint in the visiting. Similarly, it is not just about the exterior. You wouldn’t know that Jencks had ever stepped inside any of these buildings. You get no sense that the most impressive moments of the Scottish Parliament building – which I would argue tries not to be an icon – happen on the inside.

Ultimately, all of this is just finding shapes in clouds – an amusing but pointless visual diversion. Jencks’ method tells us very little about buildings. In fact, one could argue whether “iconism” is new, or whether the word “icon” has just rubbed off on to architecture through broader culture’s obsession with it.

There are, however, some nice insights in this book, like the analysis of how the symbolisms in the Ground Zero competition were manipulated in the media, but that chapter goes on too long. There’s also a lovely take on how Swiss Re had to be called the gherkin “for British understatement to triumph over phallic overstatement”.

But that dust jacket … The back shows Marilyn Monroe wearing the Walt Disney Concert Hall as a skirt. Strangely, that metaphor reminds me of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Who was it who described the building as “a whore showing her petticoats”?

The Iconic Building: The Power of Enigma by Charles Jencks, Frances Lincoln, £19.99

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 July 2011 11:06

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