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Anti iconism

form follows fashion
Text by
Ravenna Westerhout

Venturi once wrote, “It is all right to decorate construction but never construct decoration.”

Architecture is unique for its inherent social and utilitarian value. The point has always been that functionality is inseparable from aesthetics in architecture, with the aim of creating inclusive, beautiful public spaces and cities that work for the benefit of their residents. Thus, architecture must proceed from the current obsession for spectacle and craze, towards design that focuses on function and elicits relationships — with us humans, both perceptually and psychologically, as well as with their surroundings — and so can mold into satisfactory urban fabric in which we can feel at home.

Many contemporary buildings embody the age-old conflict between individual expression and the common good. Most architects will keep giving the highest value to the looks of the building – that’s how we know most buildings. Although there is nothing intrinsically bad about a building being an icon, architecture, first and foremost, needs to be completely anchored in its program and site. Its meaning must be so deeply rooted in the conditions of its outset that it is unfazed by fashion.

Take Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York as an example. Few buildings are more iconic than that, but it was never set out to be iconic, it just is. The cylindrical form is functional and the building fits in perfectly with its physical environment. This is how it should be done, a textbook example of great architecture.

Iconic buildings often jeopardize function for the sake of architectural effects. In architecture, a little excitement goes a long way, and the problem with iconic buildings is that they are generally too exciting, which draws away from their primary function. But iconic for iconic’s sake is an empty shell. It neglects and exacerbates the urgent challenges of our time, such as the environmental crisis and the need to reintegrate punctured urban fabric. It removes the unexpected, the surprise and sense of local, creating a comfortable global aesthetic in which, without help, the dweller knows how to act and perform. It demands a rapidly evolving aesthetic in which place acts more as temporal stage-set than traditional civic infrastructure, transforming architecture and the urban landscape from an experiential space to one of representation.

Concentrating design less on the iconic wow moment, and putting more emphasis upon transition and non-destination spaces would go a long way to returning architectural design back to one of presence, one that solves problems rather than scoring artistic points.

Photo by Maarten Jansen @bouwkunstig

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