Sunday, March 24, 2013

What is iconic today? (Part 1)

I so often read features in magazines about real estate developments where the owners, designers or brand gurus talk about how they pursued the inclusion of "iconic" elements ... It is surprising that even when the resulting buildings are no more distinctive than most others, they still insist on the use of the word "iconic" as a differentiation factor. It seems to be used as a descriptor for features that were desired qualities in the program, and much like the emperor's new clothes can be used to brand anything that is new regardless of its quality.

I recently discussed the notion of iconicity in architecture and interior design with a senior partner at an internationally renowned design practice. I refused to accept that iconicity can be achieved purely as a programmatic goal. Instead, I feel that we should use it cautiously to describe examples of great design, old and new, lest we loose the ability to describe really great design when it happens. My own idea of great design is defined by buildings that respect the social, historical and urban context, and can still achieve originality and innovation in their answer to the built environment. And if they have artistic qualities that distinguish them, then they can aspire to become "iconic" and be regarded as symbols of their time.

Very quickly in our conversation, we realized we were trying to answer the wrong question and we both came to agree that the problem is not the fact that people tend to overuse the "iconic" moniker in branding their developments. It is instead the fact that the energy spent in branding buildings has somewhat taken over the act of design itself.

I do not deny that branding is key to ensure competitiveness and to enable the deals required to finance real estate ventures - especially in urban environments - but do we really need to seek the same stereotyped lifestyle ideals over and over again to inspire good design?

There are very focused and experienced developers out there that are able to offer vision and guidance to their consultants and understand that sensible and thoughtful steering is the way to achieve a successful project. And if the project results in the right building for its context, its function and that attains the objectives required by the financing model, then branding becomes a natural extension of the creative process. When this happens, describing architecture or interior design can use a much richer variety of adjectives, and iconicity can return to the higher pedestal where it deservedly belongs.

In my next post I'll explore contemporary examples of "iconic" spaces, but we can start by looking at creations that defined moments in architectural history, and that still inspire today's designers. Perhaps these are the true iconic traits: they became symbols of their time, they overcame criticism and appear to have provided the right answer to their context.

The Colosseum (Rome, Italy - 72-80 AD)

Soane Museum (London, UK)
Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a neo-classical visionary who explored materials and light in ways that were so unique for his time.

Wiener Secessionsgebaude (Vienna, Austria - 1897)

The Secession Building by Joseph Maria Olbrich was a rupture with the past, while retaining the appeal of crafts and traditional arts. The motto: "To every age its art, to art its freedom."

Barcelona Pavillion (Barcelona, Spain - 1929)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created elegance in his modern functionalism.

David Hicks (1929-1998)

David Hicks' interiors are still inspiring today's designers, and have re-surfaced with the interest in the Mad Men-like retro-style.

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