The End of Iconism?

The End of Iconism?

Cristiano Luchetti is Assistant Professor, College of Architecture, Art and Design, American University of Sharjah. A judge at the last two Middle East Architect Awards he feel the emphasis on projects in the region is changing.


During his recent lecture at the American University of Sharjah, architect Rem Koolhaas stated: “after the last economic crisis every new building is required to become an icon”.

In what [Marxist theorist] Guy Debord called the “society of the spectacle” recognition of and competition among new projects happens mainly through their image and architectural language.

As Leslie Sklair wrote “iconicity in architecture is a resource in struggles for meaning and, by implication, power”.

The architectural icon represents special meanings depicted through its symbolism and it is relevant to the society which has generated it. Therefore, being iconic for a building means, mainly, to be popular, recognisable, and desirable to markets and potential final users.

Undeniably, in recent years, there has been a growing demand for iconic, more and more spectacular, forms made it possible by the advancement of digital tools and construction techniques.

In Dubai the most important example is the Burj Khalifa. With its height, it crosses the boundaries of a local significance, portraying the message –and the glittering image – of a breaking world records city around the entire globe.

In this light, I would have expected many projects submitted to the Middle East Architect Award 2015 to express the aspiration to become new landmarks of their own urban contexts. I was surprised when I realized that it did not happen. I noticed, instead, a more interesting attitude.

This year projects generally expressed a renovated attention toward the definition of a local cultural identity more than a celebration of their own global iconicity. It seems that the frenetic run toward the most spectacular has encountered a significant slowdown.

The Cayan Tower in Dubai Marina was probably, among the submissions, the only project that one could interpret as iconic. It stands out from the homogeneous modernist language of the Marina’s urban landscape through its dramatic volumetric twist.

A plastic gesture emphasized by the obsessed anonymity of its windows and homogenous use of the same cladding material. One could say that the Cayan Tower is the “leaning tower of Pisa” of Dubai.

Both are artifacts reaching the status of iconic buildings through an explicit morphological feature: the inclination for the Tuscan building, the 90 degree twist for the Marina’s structure.

Many other projects, as mentioned, offered a more sophisticated interpretation of local identities through refined responses to specific briefs. Some through architectural solutions for overly complicated required functions such as the AGI’s house Scenic House where the intricate family relationships – and consequent use of spaces- were brilliantly solved.

Then others focused on traditional and sustainable materials used in an extremely innovative way such as the palm-leaf shelters designed by 3ideas.

Budget and or time constraints were also generators of projects such as the very small $2000 restaurant or the Fast Villa both by LED Architects. Even the biggest projects, usually monumental, such as Atkins’  Viceroy Dubai tower showed a sensitive attention toward contextual and sustainable issues through an innovative typology that allows the creation of a more comfortable micro-climate for the proposed enhanced outdoor lifestyle.

It would be interesting to further investigate the reasons behind such design shift. Iconology “must start with a study of institutions rather than with a study of symbols” writes [historian] Ernst Gombrich in one of his essays.

Building up on his statement, I would argue that the most important contemporary institution behind the production of architectural contemporary icons is the whole capitalist globalisation.

Capitalism, especially in Dubai, historically showed quite a schizophrenic pattern. From the sudden and seemed-like unstoppable growth in the 80’s-90’s to the dramatic crisis of the 2009, from the contagious enthusiasm generated by the awarded expo 2020 to the current first signs of adjustment it seems that the production of iconic buildings has always been intimately related to the city economic trends.

Is the search for a more solid identity in Middle East architecture a symptom of a more mature zeitgeist (spirit of the age)? Is it, again, the end of the iconic age?

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