In The Creative City I make the distinction between narrative and iconic forms of communication. Narrative communication is concerned with creating arguments; it takes time and promotes reflection. Its 'bandwidth' is wide as its scope is exploratory and linked to critical thinking. It is 'low density' in the sense of building understanding piece by piece. It is about creating meaning. Iconic communication, by contrast, seeks to be instantly recognized. It has a narrow 'bandwidth' and highly focused purpose; it is 'high density' because it seeks to 'squash meaning' into a tight time frame, creating high impact by encouraging symbolic actions that make what is being projected feel significant.
The challenge of creative urban initiatives is to embed narrative qualities and deeper, principled understandings within projects which have iconic power. Emblematic initiatives can leapfrog learning and avoid lengthy explicatory narratives through the force of their idea and symbolism. In this context, visionary leaders, emblematic best practice projects, and the work of campaigners, radicals and risk-takers are all of paramount importance. The deci sion to create the first directly elected mayor for London had huge iconic resonance. It symbolized not just the creation of a leader committed to the city but a break with tradition and a new start. The idea of 'zero tolerance' initiated in New York to combat crime was equally iconic. Everybody immediately knows the power of the word 'zero'. 'Zero tolerance' was a packed phrase and people knew what it meant and what was expected without complex explanations. Even though it has an authoritarian feel linked to the word 'tolerance', it provides psychological comfort.
Identifying the iconic trigger - whether light, a song or even a word like 'zero' - is the most difficult aspect as communication needs to relate to the place, its traditions and identity. In an age where attention span is at a premium, identifying projects that embody principled and fresh ideas yet can be communicated iconi-cally is the challenge of the creative city. However, iconic communication, if not leavened by an understanding and acceptance of deeper principles, can be dangerous and turn into manipulation and propaganda.3
Places of desire need iconic projects. The aim of icons is to grab attention and profile. And if they fail, you can be stuck with architecture that you don't like for a very, very long time. At their best, both good ordinary functional buildings and iconic ones can exude a deep register of feelings and emotions that can sustain or enrich a city. To succeed, however, they must reflect a range of triggers, from the layers of a city's history to the thrill of the new. Calatrava's airport in Bilbao and Liebeskind's Imperial War Museum in Salford come to mind. What is right depends on context. A choice will be made as to what extent of stimulation is right and appropriate. In one instance calmness may be required, as in the de Young art museum in San Francisco; in another a sense of wildness, as in the Toronto art school by Will Alsop.
Icons seem to be most accepted when they are part of a 'head in the clouds and feet on the ground' approach, as in Bilbao, where the Guggenheim Museum is part of a much wider economic and social regeneration initiative. Overriding everything, though, is quality. The discussion of and arguments about what quality is at any given moment is at the heart of what makes an urban culture. These qualities will not be the same for all types of buildings or hard infrastructure, although some criteria may be common: utility and use value, materials used, how it is made or projected, the meaning generated, craftsmanship, symbolic value or resonance in relation to the visual forms that inhabit a culture. For example, the Kiasma gallery in Helsinki, Oslo airport and Amsterdam's Borneo Sporenburg and West 8 housing development all meet these criteria.
Icons are projects or initiatives that are powerfully self-explanatory, jolt the imagination, surprise, challenge and raise expectations. In time they become instantly recognizable and emblematic. The Eiffel Tower is iconic, reflecting the confidence of Paris' role in the industrial age, as is the Sydney Opera House, causing us to rethink the possibilities of Australia, or the Guggenheim in Bilbao, emphasizing the courage and determination of the Basque people. The London Eye is already rapidly becoming the marketing symbol for London after only five years. Such projects make us think again, so changing the perception of a place and expectations of it and for it.
Museums, galleries, theatres and sports stadia in particular can communicate iconically. Because they often do not have to strictly apply market criteria in the same way an office building needs to, they can concentrate more on quality. However, commerce, especially in fashion, is catching up and risking far higher costs for downstream image benefits. Witness Koolhaas's Prada, minimalist John Pawson's Calvin Klein flagship stores in New York or Norman Foster-designed Asprey's in London and New York. Shopping provides a showcase of what is new in architecture as there are many new shops but only likely to be a few museums and galleries. These brand-building retail stores are visible for both the brand and the architect.
The battle between content and container is key. Rarely do iconic buildings follow through this iconic approach into the content of the institution. An exception is New Zealand's national museum - Te Papa. The name itself translates as 'our place', resonating with symbolic meaning behind which lies a powerful expression of the bicultural nature of the country:
Recognizing the mana (authority) and significance of each of the two mainstreams of traditions and cultural heritage - Maoris and Pakehas - so providing the means for each to contribute to the nation's identity ... A place where truth is no longer taken for granted, but is understood to be the sum of many histories,
many versions, many voices.4
This sensibility is built, in part, into the physical fabric. A long, noble, reflection-inducing staircase proceeds past outward-looking bays towards the top, where a dramatic promontory projects us out towards the drama of sea and sky, before we reach the marae atea (the traditional Maori meeting place), which is a symbolic home for all New Zealanders. This requires little explanation and is instinctively understood.
The key objective of big events, festivals and icons is to increase drawing power. A building, a tradition, a person (such as Nelson Mandela or Frank Gehry), an event (such as the Love Festival in Berlin or the Notting Hill Carnival), a festival (such as Edinburgh) or an atmosphere (such as the liberal, free-for-all of Amsterdam) can have iconic status - yet cities seek to take the apparently easy and expensive route of a building without sufficiently exploring other dimensions.
In reality there are very few icons that have world recognition, although the desire to create new icons is hotting up at a fast pace. This frenzy has, at the very least, dramatically increased discussion of standards of design. It raises too the question of whether we can have icon or big event overload. Anecdotally, I have found through my own work that only two buildings constructed in the last 40 years are consistently cited as immediately and popularly identifiable global icons: the Sydney Opera House and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Others vying for iconic status among the cognoscenti include Richard Meier's new Getty in Los Angeles, the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the Miho Museum near Kyoto, both by I. M. Pei, and Calatrava's City of Arts and Science in Valencia.
Most icons built in the UK through its national lottery funds are of largely regional significance, such as the Life Centre in Newcastle or the Hull aquarium. This is in part because the cities themselves are not sufficiently known at an international level. The UK's new national icons can be counted on one hand, but who knows them internationally? They are unusual: the London Eye wheel; Cornwall's Eden Centre (an imaginative use of an old quarry in the middle of nowhere); and Tate Modern (which had the inheritance both of an old building and a name). Some would argue that the list should also include the Walsall Arts Centre, Peckham Library and the Millennium Bridge in Gateshead.
Iconic status accrues more easily to those cities that are already seen as icons, like Paris, for example. Second- and third-tier cities simply have to try much harder in a hyper-mediated world. It helps
Iconic buildings are sprouting everywhere: Canberra's National Museum when, like in San Francisco, you already have one: the Golden Gate Bridge on to which you can add another layer like Herzog de Meuron's new de Young museum.
Within this repertoire, festivals and big events seek to provide the content for the iconic containers. The larger festivals have, however, an additional value in that they use many other unconventional locations which allow both locals and visitors to explore less well-known parts of the city. Sometimes the use of these sites creates a dynamic for renewal. An example is the use of the massive Binding-Brauerei for Kassel's Documenta 11 in 2001, essentially the cultural Olympics for the visual arts. This redundant brewery site became subject to intense local discussion with the idea of incorporating it into the regeneration of its area rather than tearing it down. It is now a performance and exhibitions space. Melbourne is interesting as it is seeking to define the city as a whole as an icon and stage by holistically using and orchestrating iconic triggers, from urban design to events, and by increasingly projecting the city as a 'style'.
Significantly, icons can be negative when they are deemed to fail, either subjectively or objectively, such as London's Millennium
Dome. The same media frenzy that helps generate iconic impact is the same that can work in reverse. There is also a growing worry that in a world of attention deficit, we are about to suffer icon overload. This means that people can only remember a distinct number of icons. This in turn might create a more intense battle to create ever more outrageous or innovative structures that can blast through the miasmic information swamp.
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