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Iconic Architecture Redefined
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 faÃ§ade 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