Iconic Architecture Redefined

Iconic used to be a way of identifying outstanding architecture; today, the term has fallen into disrepute. It's time to reclaim iconic architecture's original meaning.

In design circles, there is a debate raging about the value of iconic buildings. Often associated with irrelevant, ostentatious design rather than architecture that will stand the test of time, the term iconic has become a dirty word. At one time it was a compliment, a way of recognizing architecture that was beautiful in form, served a useful purpose, and created a sense of place by contributing to the public realm.

Iconic Building in History

Did the ancient Egyptian pharaohs intentionally erect iconic buildings or were they just building pyramids? Any of the seven ancient wonders of the world would qualify for the term iconic. An icon is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a representative symbol of a cultural period.

In the introduction to her book, The Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, Celia King writes, “The Wonders were chosen not only for their grandeur, but for the vision and purpose that inspired them. Their size, design, and craftsmanship were without equal in the ancient world.”

Historically, craftsmanship and utility were as important as grandeur and vision. Palladio’s villas and churches are icons of Italian Renaissance architecture, just as Wren’s Protestant churches are for 17th century England. They served specific purposes, quite aside from being grand, well-executed, and thoughtful additions to the immediate environments they inhabited.

Modernism’s Iconic Contributions

Early 20th century design brought Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses, Le Corbusier’s Citrohan House, and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. Each has become an icon, although not immediately recognized as such at the time of conception.

In his profile of Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture and Space, Peter Blake observed that Wright was influenced by Louis Sullivan, who famously wrote that beautiful form could only be created after functional expression had been satisfied.

Later modernism would stretch this definition of form and function to its limits, as in Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, (1957). As Charles Jencks writes in Modern Movements in Architecture, the shell vaults, meant to mimic sailboats in Sydney harbour, were initially criticized for not relating to their specific purpose (acoustic halls suitable for opera). Today, most viewers would agree Utzon’s opera house is an asset, transcending mere utility. It is arguably Australia’s most iconic building and an international destination.

Signature Architecture and Post-Modernism

Criticism of much post-modern architecture is grounded in a debate about the purpose of architecture. Critics point to the advent of so-called signature architects or starchitects who monopolize short lists for design competitions and sometimes build edifices that don’t seem to address programmatic or functional needs very well. These buildings’ sustainability credentials are in question and some are inimical additions to the surrounding environment.

Iconic has become synonymous with wacky crowns on high rise buildings, uber-tall structures that come down hard at grade, and unusual architectural forms. A walk through Daniel Libeskind’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM in Toronto quickly reveals the deficiencies of an iconic approach when it comes to displaying the museum’s collections. Only a genie of a curator could successfully hang exhibitions in the new museum’s spaces. On the exterior, the gracious façade of the adjacent heritage building has been mauled by the crystal’s creeping facets. Even the craftsmanship of the addition is in question, with leaking having occurred at construction joints and giant icicles threatening passers-by during the winter season.

Perhaps it is time to reappropriate the word iconic for the purpose for which it was originally intended, as a way of recognizing well-established architecture which is beautiful, functional, a welcome adjunct to the social and physical environment, and a worthy testament to the culture of its time.