London, Paris, New York... what images do we associate with these cities when we talk about them? When I think about London, before I know it, the London eye, Big Ben, Gherkin, GLA, Millennium Bridge, St Paul’s cathedral...all come to mind. It is an unwritten tradition for us to connect architecture to the cities in our minds. Architecture builds a city, defines it...rewrites it! People like to be proud of their city therefore they like to be proud of the architecture.
Londoners are very proud of their buildings. These projects immediately become strong symbols of London and were baptized with British humour, receiving nicknames right after construction. Architecture has a great impact on people and the surrounding environment. When a skyscraper rises 300 ft up in the air (despite the design), it is very hard to ignore talking about it. It becomes part of your daily experience in the city, a landmark. We like to criticize buildings and it seems to be much easier than criticizing an abstract painting. But sometimes there is something different about a building. It is special...like an “icon”. The question is: when do we call a building “Iconic”?
Iconic buildings are designed uniquely. They are usually eye-catching (in a good or bad way), examples of creativity and innovation, and are significantly different from the context they are planted in. Iconic buildings do not belong to a certain period of time. Sometimes they carry a meaning under their skins and become a metaphor for a nation. An Iconic design stands out from the crowd and stays in the memory of a society. However, some of these different buildings might not receive very kind comments at their beginnings.
The Eiffel tower in Paris can be considered an Iconic design. It is one of the symbols of Paris. It has been designed differently from the surrounding area. Because of this difference at the time of construction many people were against it. The novelist Guy de Maupassant wrote a letter to the minister of public works denouncing the Eiffel tower as “useless and monstrous” stating that its “hateful shadow would overwhelm the capital’s finer monuments”. The story goes that after construction he liked to sit down in the restaurant at the base of the tower since it was the only place he didn’t have to look at the tower!
Varying situations in different countries show that Iconic buildings have a great impact on people, their level of vibrancy and even the economy as we have seen in the case of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. It is important that a city has some iconic/symbolic design to be proud of and to be known by. What if, as designers, we treated every building like an icon? What would happen to the context and to the city as a whole? Are we as designers looking for an “Iconic city”?
- Homayoun Rad