Why modern architectural icons fall short

Take a city. It will have at any time a handful of iconic structures at most and plans to build a dozen more.

But a city’s icons don’t change often. Ask Rome. Ask Cairo. So each decade, hundreds of ‘iconic’ blueprints eventually manifest as little-noticed buildings.

"Something iconic must be widely recognisable and represent more than itself."
Jason Murphy, Publisher, Thomas the Think Engine

That doesn’t stop the dreamers from dreaming, the spruikers from spruiking and the funders handing over large sums. They are wilfully blind to the odds that say their construction project probably won’t turn into an icon. 

For this blindness, one can’t help but blame the Opera House. 

It looms so large in our collective imagination. It makes everyone believe the next iconic piece of architecture is just a design competition and a fistful of dollars away.   

The temptations of building an icon are high. The University of Technology Sydney opened its newest building in late 2014, designed by ‘starchitect’ Frank Gehry, who built the acclaimed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. While under construction, the UTS building was expected to “be second to the Opera House.” 

The presence of that structure, with its beauty, its acclaim and its undeniable impact, seems to fertilise the belief that having an iconic piece of architecture is simply a matter of wanting one. And folly ensues.

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The odds of this bundle of classrooms and offices coming to symbolise very much or attracting crowds in veneration and awe are small. 

And the costs of an icon are real. To make something stand out, it needs an unusual shape. 

Seattle’s space needle, New York’s Statue of Liberty and the Sydney Opera House show this. The most iconic structures aren’t usually office or apartment blocks. 

To make a structure stand out, it needs to shrug off the constraints of form that go with optimal geometry (normally cubes are the most efficient thing to build if you wish to optimise floorspace.). It should also preferably abandon tradition. 

This can mean you’re going to have years of engineering problems getting the damn thing built. Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station’s undulating roof was described as “a remarkable spectacle,” “a considered piece of urban architecture,” and, of course, “iconic.” 

It went hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and was delivered over a year late. The roof then leaked. 

Iconic buildings are rarely optimised for functionality. Even Sydney’s Opera House famously falls short in its interior. 

If your office block is shaped regularly, it can still be iconic on one condition. It must be tall. 

Malaysia’s Petronas towers are not much to look at, but they represented a powerful tourist attraction for the years that they were the world’s tallest (1998-2004) and a potent symbol of Malaysia. 

They’ve since been overtaken. First by Taipei 101, which held the title for six years. Then again by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Will Dubai’s monument be pipped one day? 

Melbourne’s Rialto Building was the city’s tallest for a long time, and a local icon. But a taller tower came along, and it quietly transformed its viewing platform into a restaurant, before blending back into the skyline. Tallness is a frustratingly transient way to obtain iconic status. 

Icons are few and the chances of building one deliberately are small. The chances shrink further still when you consider that some icons were never meant to be seen as such. 

Many icons start their lives as functional things. Like Holland’s windmills or China’s Great Wall. For a more recent example, think of London’s Eye, designed to take photographs from not photographs of.

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The word icon comes from the Greek word eikon, meaning likeness, and for a long time referred solely to paintings of Jesus, Mary or other religious figures. 

In more recent times the secular world had its icons too, including, or even especially, in the non-Christian world. Asian architecture is a quest for the iconic, with Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV Tower and Beijing’s CCTV building leading the running.

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Something iconic must be widely recognisable and represent more than itself. It must wend its way into the collective consciousness. It’s a big ask, and that’s why most buildings fall short. 

The word iconic can be defined, but it doesn’t answer the question of why an iconic building is desirable, especially in an environment where such icons exist already. 

In February 2015, the Barangaroo Development Authority began accepting bids for the redevelopment of part of Barangaroo - an unusually prominent waterfront section of Sydney’s CBD. 

Crown Resorts has already submitted an unsolicited bid that includes a large hotel and casino. 

Its owner, James Packer, says “Crown Sydney will be the most iconic building constructed in this city since the Opera House.”

But the buildings planned have been criticised as “so unconscious of their context they may as well be in Dubai.''

Whether the proposed building meets the standards of non-conformity to be considered iconic is debatable, but it is tall. At 250m it would be Sydney’s tallest. It will meet the modern icon test, by appearing in a lot of tourist snapshots and Instagram uploads, although in many of those it may simply be in the background of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House 

Icons, despite the attention paid to them, are not universally adored. The first iconoclasts were Byzantines who opposed the use of images in Christianity. These days an iconoclast is someone who opposes mainstream thinking. 

Frank Gehry, the architect behind the UTS building is conventionally lauded as an iconoclast. But there are only so many ways a conventional form can be twisted and only so long that doing so retains the power to surprise. 

Perhaps what architecture needs - and what Sydney needs - is the kind of iconoclast who understands that there is more than one route to iconic status - an icon can grow famous over time for its enduring functionality. For inspiration, one needn’t look far. The Harbour Bridge won a design competition too. The winning design was selected for its cheapness and rigidity.

Jason Murphy publishes the highly popular blog Thomas the Think Engine and is a former writer for The Australian FinanciaL Review.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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