Icon (n) An important and enduring symbol.
I attended a lecture sponsored by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, entitled “Buildings That Try Too Hard”. The speaker was Witold Rybczynski, the architecture critic for Slate magazine, author of more than fifty articles and papers on the subject of housing, architecture, and technology in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. So, he’s got some credentials!The main take-away point is that the public chooses what’s an icon, not the architect or the client. They are buildings which have a meaning beyond their original purpose, a symbolism. Today, so many clients are asking for an iconic building, but many fail miserably. Generally, a new apartment building is not an icon.
The lecture was divided into four parts: Icons, Instant Icons, Failed Icons and Anti-Icons.
Some of the icons were the Eiffel Tower which was built as a temporary structure, the Empire State Building, long the tallest building in the US, and the Washington Monument. Often these structures were not successful when first built, but gained a stature over the years. One question to ask about an icon is “Can you get the building in salt & pepper shaker form?”.Instant icons are buildings that are purpose built to become an icon. Many times, there is a competition for the building and the most outrageous is selected. Think about the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the recent Beijing Olympic Stadium. For both Sydney and Bilbao, the buildings basically put these cities on the map. Failed Icons are buildings that really illustrate the point of trying too hard. The client figures that the Bilbao Guggenheim attracts millions of visitors, so if we do a titanium-skinned building, with all sorts of swoops and angles, then the visitors will come flocking to the space. Some of the examples of failures are the Millennium Dome in London, the Denver Art Museum, with all of it’s angled walls which are bad for hanging art! Anti-icons are buildings that are simple, classic and fully serving the purpose for which they were built. They function as they should, they are not full of jarring elements and pretensions and will continue to look timeless through the ages. Some of these include Seiji Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, The Sainsbury Center in Norwich, England and The Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, Texas.What are your iconic buildings, and what are the ones that you consider failed icons?