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Building society

In the battle between 'iconic' and 'inclusive' architecture, both sides have ideological designs on the public.

Penny Lewis

Topics Culture

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For the past couple of years there have been critical whisperings about the magical ‘Bilbao Factor’, the idea that an adventurous piece of architecture by a high-profile architect can magically transform the image and economic fortunes of a city.

There have also been grumblings about ‘shape-making architecture’ – weird and wonderful geometries made possible by overly complex engineering solutions, heavily loaded with symbolism and designed to provoke pride, awe and emotion among visitors. The debate about architectural icons runs parallel to a broader row about branding, the global reach of the market and the relationship between culture and commerce.

These criticisms recently came to a head in a full-scale attack on iconic architecture by Graham Morrison, a director at Allies and Morrison Architects. Morrison used the AJ/Bovis architecture awards to talk about the ‘bad icon’, attacking Daniel Libeskind’s London Metropolitan University as a ‘cultural placebo’ and Will Alsop’s Fourth Grace in Liverpool as a ‘doughnut on sticks’. ‘A bad icon is the built representation of an unsupported claim, a meaningless pompous gesture, which exceeds reasonable representation of its content, initiated either by vanity or expedience, in which the efficient working of its accommodations is compromised and the context in which it is built is left worse off’, said Morrison.

In response, leading British architect Piers Gough accused Morrison of producing ‘anodyne GM Modernism – genetically modified to remove any ideology (looks like Modernism but tastes of nothing)’. Gough argued: ‘Iconic status is not ours to give; it comes from a public that recognises such resonance in buildings. However, a prerequisite is that architects attempt to put up buildings that may resonate. Graham Morrison would have us return to a time when buildings knew their place in the pecking order. Housing and offices were to be the dull bits in between more important public buildings. But the world of hierarchies has gone. Home, work and shopping are now as, or possibly more, important in people’s lives.’

In this cultural battle it is impossible to take sides. Morrison is right that there have been many gestural attempts to endow some buildings and the institutions that they house with significance through architectural symbolism. But Gough is also correct to argue that there is a conservative streak behind demands that contemporary buildings be ‘contextual’ and inoffensive. The attack on the icon is part of a reactionary attack on the so-called ‘architectural ego’, the passion that drives architects to design ambitious buildings in their own image.

Interestingly, the iconoclasts and the anti-iconoclasts share many assumptions about the power of architecture; they are part of a broader consensus that assumes that architecture can transform society. Over the past few years it has become increasingly popular for politicians, clients and building professionals to make exaggerated claims for their projects. Whether buildings are flamboyant and iconic or understated and restrained, the claim is that architecture can be used to reconstruct the public sphere, enhance self-esteem and engender economic activity. These arguments are not restricted to big cultural and political projects such as the Guggenheim at Bilbao or the City Hall building in London – they are also made in relation to more mundane buildings such as schools and hospitals.

There is some truth to this. As Winston Churchill said ‘We make our buildings and then our buildings make us’. But while our buildings reflect and reinforce what we are, they can’t create an ethos for political institutions, or conjure social bonds out of thin air. These are problems that are only susceptible to social solutions.

Those who set out to be deliberately anti-iconic argue that their buildings construct consensual politics. When Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar selected Enric Miralles to design a new Scottish Parliament building he said he was looking for a building that would not be iconic or hierarchical, but transparent and accessible. Dewar was explicit that the building should not look like Westminster and should instead be modelled on a new more consensual politics, without the pomp and ceremony of the traditional ‘corridors of power’. The designs for the new Welsh Assembly building by Richard Rogers take the arguments for anti-iconic buildings a step further. Rogers’ building is little more than a big shed with a chamber in the middle. It has been designed to be as flexible as possible to respond to the needs of the new institution as it develops. This kind of understated response to a brief is increasingly praised as being less arrogant and closer to the real needs of the people. In truth it is no less ideologically loaded than the ideas promoted by the ‘iconophiles’.

Much of contemporary architectural thinking is grounded in a polemic against modernism and even classicism. The ‘hierarchy of spaces’ and the ‘orchestration of movement through a building’ is out – provocative spaces designed to give users a unique ‘experience’ and solicit emotion are de rigueur. Everybody is hankering after ‘flexible’ spaces designed on the assumption that users’ own activity will define the nature of the place, rather than being guided by the architecture.

Writing in the Observer recently, architecture critic Deyan Sudjic suggested that we are now witnessing the end of the icon. ‘Six months ago everybody and his dog wanted an icon, now it is just as much a piece of received wisdom that the icon is all over….’ Sudjic may be right that the trend to produce weird and wonderful shapes of building is passing, which is a shame because this approach has produced some of the best architecture in recent years.

However, the break with a tradition is probably less important than the process of continuity. Any discussion of architecture today is coloured by the belief that architecture has a significant social and cultural impact and can be used as a tool to generate economic activity or to increase self-esteem. Whatever the shape of the buildings produced in the next two decades, this assumption will underwrite much of the commissioning process and influence the design. Buildings may be purged of the showy symbolism of the late twentieth century, but they will be loaded with a new symbolism associated with a rather strained concept of social justice and accessibility.

Penny Lewis is editor of Prospect, the Scottish architecture magazine.

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Topics Culture

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