Daniel Hewitt | Photographer

Content(ion) – (anti)icon

Now that the era of the architectural ‘icon’ is at least on pause (if it hasn’t quite been ejected), talk of ‘anti-icons’ is becoming more prevalent. However, what is meant by the term is not always consistent. For example, Rem Koolhaas has spent a number of recent years describing OMA’s singular and dramatic buildings as anti-icons (including CCTV in Beijing and the Casa da Musica in Porto); even his 2006 Serpentine Pavilion in London was marketed as an “anti-pavilion”. By contrast, Tom Dyckhoff, The Times architecture critic, has dubbed the comparatively demure (albeit with gold highlights) Nottingham Contemporary by Caruso St John an “anti-icon”.[i] The question arises whether a common quality is picked out by the term ‘anti-icon’ in both these kinds of case, or whether there are discrete categories of anti-icon. The issue is important insofar as simply branding a building ‘anti-iconic’ seeks to influence our judgement of its worth. It is notable that in all the press coverage (that I’ve seen) of such pretenders to anti-iconic status, none has explained the sense in which the buildings are anti-iconic; the reader is left to find it intuitively obvious.

To get clear about what an anti-icon is, we need to provide an analysis of the concept of an ‘icon’. As with ‘anti-icon’, the use of the word ‘iconic’ in relation to buildings has been used fairly loosely to cover a considerable range of designs. Perhaps the most helpful place to start would be with the simple notion of an icon as a landmark, or focal point of architectural attention within a neighbourhood, city, region, country, or perhaps even the world. This is fine as a starting point, since it is at least the aim of all contemporary icons: namely, to impress their form on the gaze of large numbers of people. However, it doesn’t help distinguish the contemporary approach to such icon design from historical buildings. The form of the contemporary icon is noticeably different from its Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, International Style Modern, and Brutalist predecessors. To say that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao is simply a latter day Baroque Cathedral, is a fairly superficial remark.

Probing deeper, Charles Jencks (in his book The Iconic Building) has gone some way to analysing the form of the contemporary icon.[ii] What is distinctive about the recent landmark buildings, he claims, is they are “enigmatic signifiers”. What seems to be meant by this phrase is that the contemporary icon is a fertile object in terms of its visual resemblances. I will expand on what is meant by this phrase in due course.

I take it that Jencks’ starting point is that to be an icon is to be distinctive, not merely from its immediate surroundings, but from a ‘programmatic typology’. For example, the typology of the modern office block has come to be signified by buildings with a form which derives from or otherwise resembles Mies van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York. The contemporary iconic office building (such as 30 St Mary Axe, also known as the ‘Gherkin’, in London) deviates from this now-conventional template. Similarly, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim doesn’t look anything like historical galleries, whether in Spain or elsewhere. It is iconic (at least in part) insofar as it redefines (if not merely subverts) what we expect an art gallery to look like.

Jencks’ view is that such redefinition of a formal typology could only be successful if there is something in the new form which is appropriate to the building’s purpose. An icon will not succeed as an empty gesture. One way of doing this, which Jencks favours, is the use of more or less overt symbolism, either in the building’s overall form, or in its details. For example, (whether convincing or not) he cites Studio Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum in Salford. There the roof is curved like a section of globe but with parts either extruded upwards or slightly sunken, the intention being to represent a fractured geopolitical landscape.

Another way – more common in recent times – of redefining a typology is through what Jencks’ identifies in the notion of “enigmatic signification”. Part of the enigma, as far as I see it, is that there is a departure from a programmatic typology. Namely, we are left unsure of what function or programme the building’s form denotes. The other part of the enigma, according to Jencks, is that the forms of iconic buildings are more or less susceptible to being seen as resembling other (typically non-architectural) objects. It is more precisely enigmatic in that such resemblances may be multitudinous, and not necessarily intended by the architect. It is unlikely that Foster + Partners intended their Swiss Re building in the City of London to resemble a gherkin, still less a “fat banker in fishnets”! However, they may have intended an evocation of spaceflight with the rocket-shaped structure. There is no overt symbolism about the history or nature of the insurance industry. The relationship spaceflight has to re-insurance, or city finance in general, is certainly not obvious – but unlikely associations are the stuff of successful advertising! Perhaps it will one day be a requirement for brokers at Lloyd’s of London to dress like cosmonauts…?!

The success of the icon thus depends on the richness and appeal of the connotations evoked by the form. It is tempting to say that the icon as enigmatic signifier is primarily an expressive object. This would suggest that the icon conveys certain moods or atmospheres without symbolising anything in particular. However, the expressiveness of the enigmatic-signifier-icon is largely dependent on its resemblances, and in that sense is quasi-symbolic. The expressiveness of such icons is frequently achieved through more or less indirect or subtle resemblances to other objects with which we have an emotional relationship, such as the sexual orifice-like escalators at Selfridges in Birmingham (or, indeed, its facade reminiscent of an alien), the rocket-shaped form of the Gherkin, or the soaring, skeletal ribs of Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. (The intended effect may of course be thwarted by unintended resemblances. No doubt the architects at Foster + Partners did not consider designing a giant testicle for the office of London’s Mayor, but once noticed, it is difficult to completely dispel such an image.) Such quasi-symbolic forms are distinct from symbolic forms which denote a relatively specific idea – even if the precise content of that idea varies from person to person. For example, A.W.N. Pugin’s claim that the pointed arch in Gothic architecture symbolises the Holy Trinity points to a specific idea of God, even though the precise nature of the Trinity may be a matter of theological dispute (eg. the question whether the three are one, or the one is three).[iii] By contrast, a form redolent of sexual parts in the context of a department store probably doesn’t denote any specific doctrinal or cultural idea about sex, but it may be intended (or at least be seen) to introduce a libidinal fever to shopping. (Further discussion of this fine distinction between symbolism and expressiveness will have to wait for further treatment elsewhere.)

This analysis of the contemporary icon may be summarised by way of a single example. Zaha Hadid Architects’ MAXXI museum in Rome is an archetypal enigmatic-signifier icon. (1) It is a landmark in its particular urban context. (2) It doesn’t look much like its predecessor art museums – unless also designed by the same architects! (3) The form has been described as a scrum of “copulating eels, petrified in concrete”[iv], and its interpenetrating elongated volumes as resembling the sweeps and lunges of motorway slip roads and flyovers. It thus combines (what is arguably) an indirect symbolism of the dynamism of automobile traffic and the expressiveness of those writhing forms to further subvert the programmatic typology of the art gallery. Where the gallery was once (if not that much nowadays) a place for quiet contemplation of static art, the MAXXI encourages us to veer away from such an institutionally staid method for art appreciation.

Notwithstanding the examples above, we might object at this point that far from defying a typology, icons have begun to resemble one another to the extent that each is no longer as singular or avant garde as they pretend. Instead, they form a class of objects more properly described simply as showy pseudo-sculpture. This may be true, but, philosophically at least, we need to maintain a distinction between the concept of an icon as a pioneer and a class of objects which resemble (or adopt the general approach of) the pioneer. It is therefore still open to us to describe a building as an icon in a limited sense. Jencks’ concept of an enigmatic signifier would be pertinent only as an approach to design which takes its lead from the pioneer icons of recent architectural history. In this latter sense, it is still open to architects to aspire to create the perfect ‘icon’: one which is sensuously compelling and teasingly enigmatic. By way of comparison, Mies’ Seagram Building is an icon of its time, but perhaps not in terms of it redefining a typology, but as giving a sense that the formal typology of the modern office block had been perfected.

Armed with these variants on the concept of an icon – namely, as a landmark building which may or may not defy a programmatic typology, in a way which may incorporate overt symbols, but more often is either “enigmatic” or simply expressive – we can now consider the meaning of the term ‘anti-icon’.

'Anti' denotes the 'opposite' or 'negation' of its antagonist. A simple view would be to think of the anti-icon as that which abhors all that the icon embodies or represents. But to achieve such an aim would be reduce the anti-icon to the status of the utterly unremarkable. It doesn't warrant an ostensibly new conceptual term to describe mundane or routine buildings. The term anti-icon must describe a building which seeks to undermine the icon in some way, to act as an adversary, not to meekly shuffle under the aesthetic radar.

We may do better to borrow from literature, the concept of the anti-hero. The anti-hero is still the protagonist, but lacks the qualities which define a hero; or perhaps more precisely, possesses qualities which the reader (or a supposed guardian of public morals) finds difficult to sympathise with or condone. The anti-icons of OMA and Rem Koolhaas are certainly the central architectural characters in their urban ‘narratives’. Reading Content (Koolhaas’ 2004 book on OMA’s recent work), we see those buildings anthropomorphised (in the manner of a comic-book) into various spiky and aggressive characters.[v] If we are led (by PR) to believe that the icon is a benign phenomenon, OMA introduces us to the awkward, perhaps even sinister.

What is clear from such cartoons is that OMA’s buildings operate in the enigmatic-signifier way that Jencks identifies: their forms are fertile sources of visual resemblances. The difference lies in whether those resemblances are ones we are supposed naturally to incline to, or to find edgy or troubling. Writing in the Architects’ Journal, Patrick Lynch describes the Casa da Musica in Porto as like a sullen teenager, skulking in the corner (albeit prominently in Portugal’s second city). In other projects, hulking mass combines with awkward angles (Seattle Library), threatening overhangs (China Central Television Building), and even a resemblance to the Death Star from George Lucas’ Star Wars (Convention and Exhibition Centre project, Ras Al Khaimah), to convey a sense of ominous power.

By contrast, when Tom Dyckhoff describes Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary as an ‘anti-icon’, he must have something altogether different in mind. The cluster of roughly cubic volumes is not redolent of non-architectural forms; so the gallery does not engage with Jencks’ concept of an icon as a fertile source of visual resemblance. Instead, Caruso St John have sought to engage with the issue of urban context. It has been a frequent charge against ‘icons’ that they have not sought to integrate themselves into an existing urban context, but rather to redefine that location with themselves as the ‘alpha-male’, so to speak. The consequence has been a kind of visual dictatorship (sometimes benign, sometimes not so). Nottingham Contemporary has eschewed such posturing in a number of ways. Firstly, its scale is modest, and its massing does not impinge on the stature of its neighbours. Its visibility is assured by means of two gold-coloured fly-tower-like volumes on the roof and the continuation of the gold colour in the mullion-like strips which divide the undulations in the concrete facade. Secondly, since the site was formerly a Victorian lace factory, Caruso St John further develop a connection to the locality by using a lace pattern relief in the concrete panels. Although this is a fairly literal allusion to the area’s heritage, the execution appears exquisite rather than mawkish.

No overt attempt is made either to subvert or to fundamentally re-define the typology of the modern art gallery (in the way that Gehry or Hadid have done). Rather, the aim seems to have been to focus on fine detailing, craftsmanship and emphasising a connection to both the present and past local context. Of course, this latter emphasis is not without recent precedent in the UK: Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern preserved the shell of Bankside Power Station (and thereby a highly visible trace of its former use); and Ellis Williams Architects’ Baltic Arts Centre did the same with the Baltic Flour Mill in Gateshead. And in that sense, Nottingham contemporary is consistent with such an ‘anti-iconic’ lineage.

Like its antonym, ‘anti-icon’ should not be bandied about indiscriminately. In particular, its use should be supported by some (even if only brief) elaboration about what is meant. Misunderstanding could risk conflating the thinking and output of Rem Koolhaas/OMA with that of practices like Caruso St John, which I dare say wouldn’t be palatable to either kind of architect.


[i]    Tom Dyckhoff ‘Architecture: Hail the New Puritanism’ in The Times, 14 November 2009

[ii]   Charles Jencks The Iconic Building: The Power of Enigma (London: Frances Lincoln, 2006) esp. Chapter 2

[iii]   A W N Pugin Contrasts (New York: Leicester University Press, 1973) p.3

[iv]  Catherine Slessor ‘Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI is finally unveiled’ in The Architectural Review January 2010 p.13

[v]   Rem Koolhaas Content (London: Taschen, 2004) esp. p.544



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