The Transition of the Architectural Icon

Originally written for ARCH 3403: World Contemporary Architecture with Professor Shiqiao Li, Fall 2019

Iconography is the basis of architectural history. By investigating the icons of the past, historians begin to understand the values and principles of the cultures who erected these buildings. While innumerable structures have been created in the history of mankind, only a select group have been solidified in the minds of present day architects and historians. These works share the narratives of past peoples, acting as case studies and windows into another era. Iconography helps define the most culturally significant values of peoples throughout time. The shift in architectural iconography across time marks a transition in the dominating principles of people. Investigating the icons of building at different points of history begin to break down major typologies of icons in architecture. Ancient history yielded different culturally important structures than the middle ages to the early modern, just as the shift in morals and values of the age of modernity created different architectural form. The last major shift in iconography is the shift from the modern to the post-modern, contemporary architecture at the present time. Globalization and the rise of modernity began to mark a shift in ideological philosophy of cultures. At this point in time, the dominant ideology that drives the thematic essense of iconic buildings has transitioned from mainly religious ideology to the driving philosophy of globalization: increased financial prosperity. Iconography digs deeper than just values and principles; it defines a people at their best, hoping to represent and solidify in time the characteristics and legacy of a people.

In prehistory (around 3000 BC-0 BC), the iconic buildings from the ‘Ancient World’ are case studies of different societal understandings of surroundings, political statements, and attempts to mark a people's’ place in the world. The iconography of popular ancient architecture typically surrounds the cosmological perception of a people. For example, the iconic Stonehenge is Salisbury Plain, England can be “perceived [as] interconnections between objects and events in the sky and other aspects of the natural and social world commonly form part of people’s understanding of the overall order of things” (Pollard). The radial megalithic stones create a timepiece, creating a connection between people and the cosmos. Stonehenge, as an architectural work, can be interpreted as ancient people utilizing a majority of their resources to engineer a physical indicator of a culturally significant ideology: connection with the universe. Ancient architectural icons can fit under the typology of cosmological iconography. The pyramids of Giza, another icon of prehistory, has a link to the sky, as the point of the pyramid is said to have “line[d] up with Orion’s belt” when they were first constructed (Gingerich). Again, the ancient Egyptian culture utilized a hefty amount of resources to construct a structure that connects their civilization to the sky, linking their society to their gods. There are countless other instances of cosmological architectural iconography from the ancient world like Cabbah in Mecca, the Buddhist Temple at Borobudur, the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza, and more. All of these religious architectural icons have strong axis mundis. At that point in architectural history, cultures and peoples monumentalized structures for their religious ideologies and establish their identity in the world.

Another common iconographic architectural typology that emerged later in architectural history is a religious and political icons. In this typology of iconography, architecture is used an agent of religious and/or political influence to assert the dominant cultural view of a people. For example, the Great Mosque of Cordoba (built around 784 AD) is a religious and political signifier for Al-Andulus. This structure was originally a Visigoth church that was converted to a mosque for the new Ummayad capital by Prince Abd al-Rahman I, which asserted the main core of power for the caliphate. “This specific moment in the Cordoba mosque’s history will be shown to exhibit an iconographic charge that is born out of a subtle interweaving of historical, cultural, and mythical” (Khoury). The icon of the great mosque had the active role of asserting a new socio-political and religious soul of a civilization. In addition, the Great Mosque features a hypostyle hall full of ablaq arches (contributing to a complex cultural identity of the region) that resembled a ‘sea of arches’, which symbolically shows the conquering of the sea. In the thirteenth century, King Ferdinand III conquered Cordoba. To further clarify this structure’s power (in terms of culture, religion, politics, and societal centrality), the king constructed a cathedral in the middle of the sea arches, a political assertion of power over the Umayyads and the sea. This architectural iconographic shift from cosmological to religious and political typologies shows the overall ‘global’ interaction between cultures. Instead of focusing on the values of cultural identities among the cosmos, there were assertions of power among cultures. Architecture was used as a political agent to maintain dominating religious world views.

Architectural religious iconography is rampant throughout the history of building, especially from the middle ages through the early modern era. Justinian I’s Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) is another case study of spiritual iconization in structure. Using a central dome, Hagia Sophia connects itself to the religious afterworld often likened to “the dome of heaven itself” (Wegner). The structural engineering of this building creates a spiritual experience that seeks to amaze and solidify the dominant narrative of faith of the Byzantine empire. Religion (as well as politics) was the driving force behind the iconography, symbolizing the values of the Byzantine culture. Other case studies of divine and political iconization via structure include St Peter’s Basilica, Alhambra, Chartres Cathedral, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Temple of Heaven, and more. The principality and characteristics of these religious icons assert the dominant views of the cultures at hand.

The next major iconographic typology that emerged in architectural history is the modern icon. The modern era was in full swing in the late 19th century to the mid twentieth century. Robertson calls the start of the ‘modern era’ (denoting that the start was around 1870) “globalization’s ‘Take Off Phase’ citing... the increasing diffusion and implementation of ideas at the international level” as well as a variety of other factors like increase global communications, world events (WW1, the Olympics, etc), and more (Cuddy-Keane, 540). As the world began to communicate and interact at the global scale like never before (i.e. globalization), culture and ideas flowed across the world, spreading influence, and a new ‘international’ style emerged in architecture, creating an additional typology of iconography. “Cultural globalization is found in patterns of reciprocal interaction, which include, but also expand far beyond, the global spread of corporate symbols and pop culture,” which yield effects of “homogenization… and hybridization” (Cuddy-Keane, 544). An example of this modern icon in architecture is Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Villa Savoye is known as a case study for Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture, a ‘machine for living in’, its use of technology to create lighter forms, and its modern style entering the dialogue of the international vernacular. In an interview, Le Corbusier described Villa Savoye, and a characteristic of modernism: "The house is placed in the middle of a field like an object, without disturbing anything" (Murphy). Where past cosmological and religious architectural iconography had deep relevance to the local culture and surroundings (even geopolitical atmosphere), the modern icon is nearly detached from its surroundings, ‘like an object.’ The international style is homogenized and stretches to encompass a global perspective instead of endorsing local values and cultures. Villa Savoye was an architectural argument in a dialogue at the global scale, and he asserted his own ideas for the international stage. “Modern architecture was a magnificent mutiny against historicism, revivalism and the vernacular. It presented our century with a culture of buildings that identified them as instruments instead of monuments” (Pawley). Just as Villa Savoye and other Corbusian works are ‘machines for living in,’ part of the modern style is the lack of monumentation and the emphasis of building as object or instrument. The modern icon was born out of globalization, the spread of ideas and the connection of multinational economics.

With the shift from religious/political architectural iconography to modern, there is a radical shift away from a spiritual ideology into a greater focus of economics. Mies Van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York City is an iconic case study in this modern corporate style. The skyscraper “with its use of modern materials and setback from the city grid, became a prototype for future office buildings” (Perez). In the global capitalist economy, Mies Van der Rohe set the example of how to use the ‘less is more’ ideology to increase profitability and become a strong agent of corporate America. Much like Le Corbusier, Mies created the mold for an aspect of the international style, allowing his architectural ideas to be repeated countless times in other cities across the world. While the Seagram Building integrates itself well in the grid of New York City by being set back from the street and having a more open street level area, this form could be nicely appropriated across the globes as other cities grew. This modern icon of structure also shows the shift in American society, and the global society at large, and its faith in the economy and the corporation. The Seagram Building doesn’t reach out to the stars or make a religious statement, but worships the multinational financial situation.

As modernism faded into postmodernism and then to the current contemporary era, a new dominant architectural iconography developed: the financial economic icon (or what can be called the ‘money icon’). This icon archetype further developed out of the globalized world system to encourage the continued growth of capitalism and consumption. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain clearly defines this typology. With the complex curves and intricate form, the Guggenheim is an intriguing case study on how to resurge an economy via tourism. The ‘Bilbao Effect’ describes how building can transform a city’s economy, due to the museum’s astounding beginning when “almost 4‭ ‬million tourists visited the museum‮—‬generating about 500‭ ‬million in profit” (Pagnotta). While the Guggenheim utilizes appropriation of local culture, later Gehry projects seem to utilize his signature form anywhere, without necessarily acknowledging cultural and historical preconditions of the site. Gehry buildings showed up in many cities across the US and the world like Seattle (Experience Music Project), Los Angeles (Walt Disney Concert Hall), Paris (Louis Vuitton Foundation), etc. that was solely to repeat the iconic Gehry form and make money. As Jean Baudrillard explains the Guggenheim “prospers in the myth of a gift of the cultural potlatch and the nature of its myth as a fait accompli” (Proto, 13). This financial icon of architecture is a case study in creating form that will increase profitability and fuel the capitalist system.

In this current age, ‘iconic’ architecture is an agent of capitalism. “Buildings, spaces and architects are iconic to the extent that they become famous and symbolize the variegated fruits of consumerism and express them symbolically and aesthetically in spaces that will encourage people to spend” (Sklair 25–26). Much like the intention of the Bilbao Effect, the idea of icon-making within architecture is to encourage people to come to that specific place to see the ‘special’ building and consume in the process, boosting the local economy, which is connected to the greater world system economy. A building like the Swiss- Re Tower in London is another key example of this money icon that contributes to the societal consumption, helping the capitalist system. Large impressive buildings like the Swiss-Re are “iconic commissions: not as markers of London’s international economic success, but as symptoms of mutations in the institutions and elites that promote the City’s new urbanity” (Kaika, 454). So, these structures which seem to almost use height and complexity as icons aren’t showing the financial superiority to the world, but the control that capitalism and consumerism has over their society and ideological perceptions. Baudrillard explains how “today our only architecture [icons]” seem to be “screens” and “public stage[s]” by which “advertising invades everything” and our icons become “advertising monuments” by which consumption is the central ideology (Proto, 13). Money icons in architecture tend to be more simplified and straightforward, with the more underlying complex function of influencing people to spend and participate in the economy.

The architectural icon has transformed throughout history, indicating a shift in human value and ideology. The largest divide in architectural iconographic typologies comes between religious icons and modern icons. In the former typologies, societies utilized architecture to connect to their spiritual theologies, linking their physical environment with their divinity. Cosmologically or religiously, iconic buildings asserted the most important aspects of their beliefs on the unknown. In the latter typologies, structures were used to unify the world into a system, creating a global style of homogeneity and hybridization. The world system of globalization then yielded (and still does yield) icons to contribute to economic prosperity and consumption. Overall, globalization shifted the iconography of architecture from the worship of god to the worship of economy.

Works Cited

Cuddy-Kean, Melba. “Modernism, Geopolitics, Globalization.” Johns Hopkins University Press, September 2003. Accessed 26 February 2019.

Gingerich, Owen. “Pyramids Lined Up with the Stars.” BBC News, November 2000. Accessed 28 February 2019.

Kaika, Maria. “Architecture and crisis: re-inventing the icon, re-imag(in)ing London and re-branding the City.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, October 2010. Accessed 26 February 2019.

Khoury, Niha. “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century.”

Muqarnas, January 1996. Accessed 27 February 2018.

Murphy, Kevin. “The Villa Savoye and the Modernist Historic Monument.” University of California Press, March 2002. Accessed 27 February 2019.

Pagnotta, Brian. “AD Classics: The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao / Gehry Partners.” Archdaily, September2013 Accessed 28 February 2019.

Pawley, Martin. From Modernism to Postmodernism. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1998. ProQuest. Accessed 28 February 2019.

Perez, Adelyn. “AD Classics: Seagram Building / Mies van der Rohe.” Archdaily, May 2010 seagram-building-mies-van-der-rohe. Accessed 28 February 2019.

Pollard, Joshua and Clive Ruggles. “Shifting Perceptions: Spatial Order, Cosmology, and Patterns of Deposition at Stonehenge.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, November 2000. Accessed 27 February 2019.

Proto, Francesco. Mass. Identity. Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. Chichester, West Sussex, England: Wiley Academy, 2006. Print.

Sklair, Leslie. “Iconic Architecture and the Rise of Globalizing Cities.” Oxford University Press, 2017.

Wegner, Emma. “Hagia Sophia, 532–37.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004. Accessed 28 February 2019.