The Iconic Building
By Charles Jencks Rizzoli, 2005, 224 pp., hardcover $35. New Urbanism has yet to produce its equivalent of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: a building so astonishing that it generates excitement worldwide. Arrestingly shaped structures like Gehry’s Guggenheim or Norman Foster’s Swiss Re headquarters in London or Rem Koolhaas’s China Central Television building in Beijing are proliferating across the globe — and getting plenty of attention in the press — but most of them seem at odds with New Urbanism’s emphasis on order, human scale, and pedestrian-oriented streets and blocks. Does this reveal a weakness in New Urbanism? That question came to mind as I read The Iconic Building by Charles Jencks. “In the last ten years a new type of architecture has emerged,” declares Jencks, an architectural critic and designer who shuttles among Britain, the US, and other countries. Jencks says the makers of bold iconic architecture are giving the world expressive landmarks that garner instant fame, spark economic rejuvenation, and explore “open-ended creativity.” Bilbao is the best-known example, but according to Jencks there are numerous others, including Amanda Levete and Jan Kaplicky’s blob-like Selfridges department store in Birmingham, England, Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada store in Tokyo, and Zaha Hadid’s Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany. An avid chronicler of architectural trends, Jencks has a keen sense of why there has been a rush to erect strange novelties, often at gigantic scale. He contends that global culture has lost most of the “shared meaning” that used to impel architects toward the use of “well-known conventions.” Beliefs among educated people, whether in Europe, North America, or the Far East, have become diverse, undercutting the “hierarchy of public worth” that in the past supported what Jencks calls an architecture of “decency and appropriateness” — and “deference and conformity.” Today businesses, art museums, universities, cities, and other entities — competing for money and attention in the global market — are willing to try outlandish styles and forms. If some of the results make people unhappy or spark outrage, this may not be much of a deterrent; the furious reaction just increases the ferment and elevates the stature of designer, client, and locale even higher. connoisseur of the cutting edge Jencks is, for the most part, a friend of novelty, a connoisseur of the cutting edge. In this book, he examines, more brilliantly than anyone else I’ve read, the underlying reasons why the buildings he calls “iconic” have enthralled millions of people. In Jencks’s view, a building can become fascinating for a world audience if it is both expressive and enigmatic. The building should stimulate the observer’s mind and the emotions, yet resist being pinned down too tightly. Bilbao illustrates this. Viewers looking at the Guggenheim find suggestions of a variety of objects: “a fish, a sequined mermaid, a narcissistic swan, a duck, a window box, a Constructivist artichoke” among them, according to Jencks. A building that suggests so many disparate things becomes, in Jencks’s lingo, an “enigmatic signifier” — an object that conveys multiple metaphors. The most telling images in this abundantly illustrated book are a series of drawings depicting the metaphors in LeCorbusier’s famous church at Ronchamp; Jörn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House; Peter Eisenman’s “City of Culture of Galicia” for Santiago de Compostela, Spain; the competition entries for the World Trade Center rebuilding; and other designs of the past several decades. Jencks helps readers understand how these buildings provoke the imagination. What Jencks fails to make sufficiently clear — or perhaps does not recognize — is that despite the initial thrill, many recent iconic buildings fail as durable, complete, and humanistic works of architecture and urban design. Often they overwhelm the individuals walking by. The Swiss Re building, known to Londoners as “the gherkin” because of its pickle-like silhouette, looks interesting (if silly) on the horizon, but creates awkward and unappealing spaces at street level. Iconic buildings tend to be striking at a distance but arbitrary and unfriendly at close range. They are not always comfortable inside. Iconic buildings typically cost extra to build, yet they don’t age well. Good design ought to be more than spectacle. It makes me wonder whether in most cases the iconic architect is an ego-driven trickster: the “I” who cons the world. P.L.