Charles Jencks on the contemporary phenomenon of iconographic architecture

On Charles Jencks' 82nd birth anniversary, the writer shares his 2013 interview with the landscape designer about his thoughts on starchitecture and global tendencies.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jun 20, 2021

Charles Jencks, PhD (1939, Baltimore, Maryland – 2019, London, UK) was London and Scotland-based architecture theorist, critic, and landscape designer. He identified architecture’s transition from Modern to Post-Modern; for decades he was at the forefront of architectural discourse, theorised on architectural iconography, and established prestigious RIBA Charles Jencks Award to honour architects annually for major contributions to the theory and practice of architecture. Among the award’s recipients are Ensamble Studio (2019), Alejandro Aravena (2018), Rem Koolhaas (2012), Zaha Hadid (2006), and Peter Eisenman (2004). Together with his second wife, Maggie Keswick (1941-1995), Jencks co-founded a charity, Maggie’s Centres. Their mission is to provide uplifting and healing environments for cancer care. So far, 30 centres were built all over the world by distinguished architects, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Kisho Kurokawa, Steven Holl and Snøhetta. Jencks’s influential books include The Story of Post-Modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture; The Architecture of Hope - Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres; The Iconic Building - The Power of Enigma; Towards A Symbolic Architecture; and many editions of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. I conducted several interviews with the critic over the years, meeting with him in New York, London, and Venice. The following are excerpts from our conversation in March 2013 when we discussed starchitecture, global architecture, and whether the iconic buildings, currently no longer relevant, will return.

Frank Gehry: Maggie's Centre, Dundee, Scotland, 2003 | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Charles Jencks | STIRworld
Frank Gehry: Maggie's Centre, Dundee, Scotland, 2003 Image: Courtesy of Charles Jencks

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Starchitecture does not seem like a serious topic and most critics and architects tend to see the emergence of starchitects in a rather negative light, despite the fact that, at least, in some ways they have contributed to the creation of the star architect phenomenon. Why do you think it is such a taboo?

Charles Jencks (CJ): The phrase “starchitecture” is a condescending word that the architects usually hate. The word comes from globalisation and celebrity culture. It entails the classical ‘double-bind’, well known in psychological literature, where you are damned if you do something and damned if you don’t. That is, architects are cursed if they try to become celebrities (and fail), or don’t try to get the prestige jobs (and therefore don’t grow to an adequate size to get big buildings or affect culture). Either way, they dislike the double-bind. I understand why critics are negative about starchitecture and they would want nothing to do with it. But this contemporary phenomenon needs critical attention and running away from the dilemma is not going to help architects, or society.

Iconic Buildings, Collage | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Charles Jencks | STIRworld
Iconic Buildings, Collage Image: Courtesy of OMA

VB: As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. It is “being talked about” that leads to projects, and that which is the ultimate goal of any architect, to build. Being in the spotlight and getting work are very much related. Are they not?

CJ: Absolutely, just as Vitruvius wrote in the opening to his second book where he talks about Dinocrates, the architect who anointed his body with oil and draped his left shoulder with a lion’s skin to impress the Emperor Alexander the Great, who he then flattered with a design of a mountain in the shape of Alexander holding a city. You can’t get more anthropomorphic and literally iconic than that, and this older western tradition oscillated with periodic bouts of pragmatism and abstraction.

In order to get their firms going, and to get the kind of creatively open projects architects want, they have to play this game, a practical truth. But you should also look at architects as part-time utopians, an idealistic profession since the time of Vitruvius, who believe that they make the society better by pursuing their ideals and serving the public. Doctors may claim this, but they don’t have the cultural agenda. The architects’ vocation is a futurist art, making the world a better place, building for tomorrow. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath not to make the patient worse – the two professions are different. Most early and post-war modernists – from Wallace Harrison and Eero Saarinen to contemporary architects, from David Chipperfield to Rem Koolhaas – are pragmatic idealists. This idealism is manifested in their social and programmatic works, the “architecture of good intentions” as Colin Rowe called it.

This tradition of doing good for the public goes back to Roman times when, in some of the large cities, local governments of the regions that are now Tunis, Libya, and Jordan, spent 35 to 50 per cent of the disposable money on the public realm. Architecture was at the centre of it. There was an expenditure on the urban art which has not been equalled since. So, it is the Roman, as well as Renaissance traditions that connect us with the utopian role of the architect; to be responsible for creating the res publica.

Zaha Hadid Architects with Juan Manuel Pelaez, Arquitectos: Bogota International Convention Center, Colombia | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Charles Jencks | STIRworld
Zaha Hadid Architects with Juan Manuel Pelaez, Arquitectos: Bogota International Convention Center, Colombia Image: Courtesy of Juan Manuel Pelaez Arquitectos

VB: So, the architects generally despise starchitecture because it has no relation to serving the public and working on improving public realm?

CJ: Yes, starchitecture has more to do with iconic buildings for the glory of government and large companies…

VB: Which often don’t even grant access to the public…

CJ: It is not only a question of accessibility, but also the motives of private corporations who do not pay for the social, transcendent or cosmic meanings of traditional architecture. An example is the chain of Hyatt Hotels by John Portman, with their large open space atria. These impressive public spaces are controlled by private money, and, for example, ideological or political demonstrations could not take place there. They can only be used on certain hours, under tight regulations. Architects realise today that governments do not have the money or desire to create truly open, public spaces, so they look to private clients. The problem with such commissions is that architects are forced to produce limited clichés and icons around a corporate narrative, or even logo. Thus, the one-liner, the “wow building” ends up being banal.

Metaphors of nature and the cosmos constitute some of the underlying iconology of recent buildings. Reading from top row: Le Corbusier, Ronchamp; Frank Gehry, Bilbao; Rem Koolhaas, Porto; Gehry, Disney, EMBT, Scottish Parliament, Norman Foster Swiss Re; Rem Koolhaas, CCTV; Coop Himmelb(l)au, BMW Welt; Norman Foster, Zayed National Museum; Herzog & de Meuron, National Stadium for the Olympic Games, Beijing. Adapted from Charles Jencks’ metaphorical analysis and drawn by Madelon Vriesendorp | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Charles Jencks | STIRworld
Metaphors of nature and the cosmos constitute some of the underlying iconology of recent buildings. Reading from top row: Le Corbusier, Ronchamp; Frank Gehry, Bilbao; Rem Koolhaas, Porto; Gehry, Disney, EMBT, Scottish Parliament, Norman Foster Swiss Re; Rem Koolhaas, CCTV; Coop Himmelb(l)au, BMW Welt; Norman Foster, Zayed National Museum; Herzog & de Meuron, National Stadium for the Olympic Games, Beijing. Adapted from Charles Jencks’ metaphorical analysis and drawn by Madelon Vriesendorp Image: Courtesy of Charles Jencks

VB: Are we still in the age of the iconic building? It seems that whether architects like it or not, the demand for iconic structures is likely to stay.

CJ: Yes, and here the double-bind is most vicious. If you don’t get the big prestigious jobs, then you can’t have the kind of creative freedom liberated by such jobs. That’s why Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and others on the list of “usual suspects,” the 30 or more Google starchitects (really Wiki—architects), have to keep competing for iconic projects. Those outside the Google list get big projects by breaking into the charmed circle – which means doing iconic buildings. They are definitely here to stay, and for many more reasons than this compelling one.

Jean Nouvel: Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Charles Jencks | STIRworld
Jean Nouvel: Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi Image: Courtesy of Jean Nouvel Architects

VB: You famously defined the symbolic death of Modernist architecture and birth of Post-Modernism as the moment in 1972 when Minori Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex was blown up in St. Louis. Starchitecture is a very recent phenomenon and it has not been defined in time, as of yet. In my opinion, it occurred precisely on December 18, 2002, during the presentations of new World Trade Center plans at then just rebuilt Winter Garden of the World Financial Center. I witnessed the finalist teams’ presentations and how they immediately attracted the attention of the entire world. Do you think it is important to try to pinpoint the origin of starchitecture?

CJ: Yes, I think one should. If you are saying it was in 2002 when architects presented their new World Trade Center visions, I would say it is a good candidate, although the terms starchitecture and starchitect probably appeared a few years later. Still, in the nature of the case, historians could show several key points besides the one you mention, since this tradition formed slowly along with the historic avant-garde, and the celebrity culture of the 1960s. The Soviet Union had a burst of iconic buildings in the 1970s, some of them were even inspired by cosmic themes. Globalisation, media-power, and the collapse of traditional restraints and religion were other factors, as Ihave pointed out in The Iconic Building in 2005.

The WTC competition was an important moment, and it produced really bizarre celebrity events such as The Battle of the Glasses when Libeskind’s spectacles beat Viñoly’s, at least as media presence. Mediation is so important today, and why we cannot run away from the pressing starchitecture issue. It pervades the profession, visible in London recently with the Dream Builders Series presenting popular interviews with starchitects fronted by the BBC and RIBA together. Media-power is directly related to the promotion of iconic buildings. Our society asks for them, they are a normal consequence of late Capitalism; that is, multinationals competing for extra-large commissions. The sad irony is that we have the iconic imperative without the development of a conscious and debated iconography.

Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Wei Wei: Bird’s Nest, National Stadium, The Main Stadium, for the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, China | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Charles Jencks | STIRworld
Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Wei Wei: Bird’s Nest, National Stadium, The Main Stadium, for the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, China Image: © Iwan Baan

VB: Are you suggesting that we are experiencing an iconographic deficit in architecture?

CJ: Absolutely. We have to better understand how architecture communicates with the world. My criticism of many iconic buildings is that, in our agnostic, confused, and pluralist age, architects and their clients do not want to address iconography. This was usually an important subject in the past, mediated by the client and populous. But abstract, mid-20th century Modernism has led to an iconographic deficit, and to the dominance of the aesthetic and technical sign. To be able to choose intelligently the iconography, and style, is one of the architects’ creative freedoms. They need to discuss these issues publicly, but they often run away from the subject. James Stirling said, “If you talk about style or meaning with a client, you will lose the job because they will think you are too subjective and expensive”. The result of this silence is celebrity dominance; the wow factor has replaced debate and discussion. The important subtext of poetics and meaning is left implicit. That is one reason why I subtitled The Iconic Building – The Power of Enigma – because the enigmatic signifier, first developed as a strategy in the arts by De Chirico, has come, in the agnostic age, to dominate architecture. And, of course, I am referring to agnosticism not especially in religious terms but generally as unbelief in ideas and feelings, the pervasive neutrality.   

VB: Yet, the public desire for iconic architecture is rising. Or will it eventually die out?

CJ: Even before the 2007 crunch, major articles and books were written predicting “the end of the iconic building.” Perhaps when the World Trade Center competition failed to produce a credible iconic solution, this mood gathered momentum, and with the economic crisis, the feeling was accentuated. However, the icon in art and architecture is here to stay, and with the decline of the traditional monument, it will only grow in dominance.

The Costa del Icon with iconic buildings on London’s skyline: The Pinnacle (Kohn Pedersen Fox, under construction), The Gherkin (Norman Foster, 2004), The Cheesegrater (Richard Rogers, 2013), and The Walkie Talkie (Rafael Viñoly, 2013) | Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Charles Jencks | STIRworld
The Costa del Icon with iconic buildings on London’s skyline: The Pinnacle (Kohn Pedersen Fox, under construction), The Gherkin (Norman Foster, 2004), The Cheesegrater (Richard Rogers, 2013), and The Walkie Talkie (Rafael Viñoly, 2013) Image: Courtesy of Kohn Pedersen Fox

VB: How is it growing? What are the most convincing signs?

CJ: Globally, all along the oil route from the Middle East to Kazakhstan, from Southeast Asia to China, and then even to conservative London, the most prestigious buildings are self-confessed icons. The multibillion-dollar Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi has five future iconic cultural centers in a row, by five international starchitects from five different countries, carefully selected from the Google list: Ando, Gehry, Hadid, Nouvel, and SOM (not to mention the major museum by Foster, or the university by Viñoly).

Then look at London with the major iconic towers under construction: “The Walkie Talkie” by Rafael Viñoly, “The Cheesegrater” by Richard Rogers, “The Pinnacle” by KPF, and now finished “The Shard,” so named by Renzo Piano. The iconic building is the successor to the traditional monument and it is not going away for a very good reason – because of the growing concentration of capital in the hands of multinational corporations, rich governments, sovereign funds and the elite around the world.

These multinationals are building huge buildings all over the world, particularly in China. CCTV explicitly asked for an iconic building in their 2002 competition, the one that Koolhaas built; I can tell you because I was one of the judges; also Herzog & de Meuron explicitly called their “Bird’s Nest” an iconic building before the fact. Ai Weiwei designed it as one. Look at recent buildings there by Steven Holl, Tom Mayne, Wolf Prix, and so many others – all explicit icons.

We are living through one of the great periods for this type of construction, horrific, as it may be overall. There may be an economic downturn in the West, but it will not kill off the genre. In 10 years, there will be an even greater number in production; if the profession addresses the subject, we can design them much better, more urbanistically and iconographically meaningful.

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