by Aarthi MohanAug 22, 2023
The icon is not going away. The iconic (image, form, architecture) is here to stay, in its obvious and vividly comprehensible form. The architectural image has been one of legibility, awe, representation, always fulfilling a very specific expectation of (self-established) iconicity. These image tropes—rife in our culture—have a keen existence today, given their extensive proliferation through social media. In a world under incessant turmoil—social, political, environmental—the value, truth and perception of images become critical in their collective understanding, and hence the shaping and disruptions in culture. Arguing for a redefinition of the project of the icon and therefore the image in architecture, Mute Icons by Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich from P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S (a design and architectural practice based in Los Angeles), published by Actar Publishers, aims to construct a viable alternative to the icon’s simple cliché and exhausted form of communication, positing one that is decidedly introverted and withdrawn.
Mute Icons, an oxymoronic title, is positioned to neither clearly communicate, nor be silent. The work argues for a radical redefinition of the icon, and therefore of the image in contemporary architecture, as a ‘cultural and social irritant’ that facilitates a critical postulation of varied readings of its image. The book is contending with the ‘icon’ in multiple ways; as a dreaded term from art history’s iconography, tools of religious propaganda, as a provocation in the architectural generalised expectation of a project to ‘appear iconic’, as a cliché, a one-liner, an expectation of exuberance, a fiercely autonomous representation of a collective, and other ideas entrenched in social and cultural naivete. To dismantle and reorganise the ‘iconic’ through this book, the writers urge us to reject and shed all preconceived notions associated with it, and begin to look at the icon in conjunction with muteness, where the two in their dichotomies do not cancel each other out, but produce a sense of perpetual irritation.
Mute Icons is organised in five large sections - concept, history, discipline, projects and culture. The introductory section, Concept, advocates for the mute icon taking from the icon’s many trajectories—postmodernist theorists, icons as vehicles of wielding geopolitical power, unnecessary excesses in architecture, political declarations of ‘no more weird buildings’, literary theory and monolithism as muteness.
Following the Concept, the History section aims to construct a lineage of mute iconicity in architecture by focusing on buildings and projects that over a vast period of time have transcended their type, form, and aesthetics, and have become poster children of architectural irritation, autonomy, and even estrangement. Organised chronologically and described by means of orthographic representations, the subsequent antecedents are rendered familiar and yet strange, appealing to a new life while communicating clearly their paradoxical nature as mute icons.
Discipline: Current dichotomies and their disciplinary implications
The Discipline section acts as a conceptual bridge in the book. Literally exploiting the visual dialectics of diptychs, they aim to suggest and construct relations and exchanges. Tracing Venturi’s complexity, Derrida’s Deconstructivism, Deleuze and Guattarri’s ‘image of thought’ or rhizome, to the more contemporary Greg Lynn and Patrik Schumacher’s parametricism, the section identifies refinement and sophistication as commonplace, and a cyclical return to Venturi through the digital resurgence of postmodernism.
Excerpts and subsections within ‘Discipline’:
- Indeterminacy & Vagueness—Precedent: Za-Koenji Public Theater; Project: House of Hungarian Music
Indeterminacy, vagueness, and instability are mobilising mechanisms that subvert typological and aesthetic fixity, thereby requiring close scrutiny. Indeterminacy allows multiple formal, typological, and aesthetic categories to complicate and challenge a whole. Wherein form may be static or tensioned, rigid or inflected, it is the precision of uncertainty that makes its indeterminacy productive.
- Incongruity—Precedent: Karola Bunker; Project: Warner Grand Theater
Incongruity suggests the possibility that incompatibility, dissimilarity, and contrast can exist within a fuzzy whole that doesn’t need to fully cohere. Incongruity also has the power of reestablishing true differences within an unstable, unified whole.
- Adjacency & Disparity—Precedent: The Met Breuer; Project: A4H
Architects should no longer seek comprehensive fusions or extensive transformations, which so long overpowered essential features and even elements of architectural form. The uneasy unification of aggregates (primitives or otherwise) into monolithic) mass is just one of the possible outcomes. Breakages and edges are even more important when it comes to material changes and details. Robert Venturi’s MacDonald Research Laboratories and Gonda (Goldschmeid) Neuroscience and Genetics Research Center at UCLA demonstrates this problem. The building as a whole has classical undertones and other historical references. Its treatment of the corner defines it as a difficult whole.
- Monolithicity—Precedent: Cénotaphe à Newton, Casa da Musica; Project: Peace Corps Memorial, Prishtina Central Mosque
Form cannot be dismissed as insignificant; it is the controlling force of architecture’s image in the world and defines the field of activities, cultural habits, and social behaviours that happen around architecture. However, these forces should no longer be taken literally by architects who assume that the field — epitomised by pliant surfaces — should become physical and continuous with the object. During the last six to seven years, we have witnessed a renewed interest in solidity, resulting from an exhaustion with indexicality, the perceived inefficacy of “fields” as buildings, and the failure of the single-surface to produce substantive volume or architectural mass. Monolithic architecture embraces a rawness and discomfort in its posture towards both context and ground, stimulating degrees of indifference and independence from these. Mute Icons promote an undeniable degree of formal autonomy while stimulating social and cultural engagement.
- Cuts & Outward Voids—Precedent: SESC Pompéia Sports Complex; Project: CEFE Chapinero
Cuts and voids are fundamental assets in the articulation of architectural volume and mass. In the tradition of solidity, constructing a gap can also create new features within a mass. While a building can demonstrate coherence in its silhouette, its internal cuts, with depth and shadow as resulting characteristics, can imply either fragmentation of mass or volumetric assembly.
- Obscure Character—Precedent: Pilgrimage Church of Mary, Queen of Peace; Project: Museum of Ethnography
An anthropomorphic characterisation of architecture provides a coherent representation of something other — perhaps larger — than what a physical building actually denotes. Many representations are applicable to this: outline, contour, shape, figure, and silhouette. The silhouette is perhaps the lowest resolution acceptable for satisfactory representation. While still adequately signifying, the reduction of building to silhouette elicits the most direct communication. Its compressed character offers a common language, free from the complexities of architecture and relatable to wide audiences for mass consumption. The communicative quality of the silhouette-as-symbol solidifies the possibility of an icon. That is, the icon is ultimately not constructed by architects but recognised by the public and sustained by culture.
- Physical Abstraction—Precedent: Bruges Concert Hall; Project: League of Shadows
- Digital media and technology continue to affect material and spatial problems in architecture.
Some of these advances push towards a technological “superflat” — a physical conflation of information, material, and object into a single composite surface. Rather than celebrate representative's role as distinct from building, contemporary media can integrate with physical form and advanced materials, creating synthetic vitality in their ambiguity.
- Shade & Shadow—Precedent: The Metropolis of Tomorrow; Project: Olympia
In the post-fact era, tangible form is not as desirable as it was when it was argued for by Le Corbusier. The formal ambiguity of the mute icon is a productive target for our time. The implied depths or flattening effects of shadow offer a rich multiplicity for formal ambiguity and delayed legibility. A single shadow line can disguise a tectonic seam or a geometric edge, as it can a surface of a dark shade. This erasure reduces the immediate registration and perception of objects, momentarily neutralising features and turning things into silhouettes.
- Texture & Fuzziness—Precedent: First House of the Lumbermen; Project: National Gallery and Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art
- Ruination—Precedent: Bern Historical Museum; Project: Fuzzy Monolith
- Groundless Objects—Precedent: Qasr al-Farid Tomb; Project: Keelung Crystal
- Excavated Objects—Precedent: Church of St. George, Lalibela; Project: Lima Art Museum
- Displacements & Disarticulations—Precedent: New Museum of Contemporary Art; Project: Olympia
- Context & Conformity—Precedent: Caixa Forum; Project: Victory Healthcare
- Strange Vernacular—Precedent: Steinberg Hat Factory Dyeing Hall; Project: Infonavit Rural Prototype
- Cohering Wholes—Precedent: Ningbo Historic Museum; Project: Casa del Sol
The Projects section takes you through physical models, aerial photomontages, and abstractions. The concluding section “Culture: On Dialectics” is a conversation with Guillermo Martinez, the Argentinian novelist who speaks extensively on dialectics, logic, mathematics as a narrative intuition, the limits of abstraction, and the evolution of criticism.
As digital design production proposes an overwhelming array of roles, the definition and critical examination of iconicity often goes astray. This book by P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S with contributions by Georgina Huljich, Guillermo Martinez, Ciro Najle, Marcelo Spina, Brett Steele, and Constance Vale, is an excellent resource for architects, designers, educators, students and scholars who would like to parallelly reference history, theory, linguistics and philosophy to define iconic form, architectural image and attribute new meanings.