Does Vancouver need (or want) Iconic Architecture?

Brent Toderian's picture

Like many world cities, Vancouver has a growing discussion on the issue of "iconic" architecture, one that I've been a part of and encouraging. This despite the fact that, like many urbanists, the word iconic actually makes me nervous.  

First, it makes me nervous because the word tends to distract from what I think is the more important, perhaps less "sexy" discussion of how to increase architectural variety, diversity, and risk-taking across the city. Whether its in the context of how we do our background, "pattern building" architecture over countless sites with an emphasis on good urbanism, or in the context of how we do our "special" buildings on special sites, I think the issue of variety and risk is more interesting than debates over iconic. As I've suggested in previous posts, I agree with those who feel that the goal should be exceptional architecture in all contexts, some of which might eventually be considered iconic by the public, whether it ever ends up on a postcard or on the cover of an architectural magazine. I don't believe that you should set out to design an iconic building, especially one that is expected to be iconic in the publics mind from day one while also having longevity. It will be interesting to see if some of the current global projects seeking iconic status have a long architectural "shelf-life", or end up as "flavours-of-the-month". 

Second, the word iconic makes me nervous because often in the North American context, iconic attention-getting architecture seems to have become a big part of some cities' tourism, economic development, or even city planning strategies. In some cities, revitalization equals iconic architecture, instead of embracing deeper, more complex strategies that succeed over time. This is seen in cities chasing the "Bilbao Effect" with silver-bullet projects, but with a less-than-stellar track record of planning, pattern building and consistent attention to quality urbanism that make cities actually work and succeed. In past posts, I've called Vancouver's success the "anti-Bilbao Effect", as global urbanists come to study how a focus on quality urbanism, livability, and sustainability within a "city by design" succeeded in building a city that, despite our continuing challenges, has been globally named both "most livable" and "most visitable" by many sources. This while arguably having no individual architecture considered iconic on the global scene. 

Never-the-less, the issue of iconic architecture comes up often when Vancouver architecture is discussed. Actually, when we think of special buildings on special sites, many words are used, and I often wonder why the word iconic in particular makes me more nervous than others. I wonder why I prefer words like "landmark", "punctuation" and even "signature" over iconic?  

Perhaps I like "landmark", referencing either a site or a building, because to me it suggests the role the building plays in the landscape, as part of our mental map of the city, with hopefully exceptional architecture to match. For example, a landmark building can serve to terminate an important view at the end of a street, as many churches and civic buildings used to do. 

"Punctuation" is a word I use a lot, in the sense of city architecture being made up of "pattern and punctuation". Perhaps I like the term because not every punctuation point in a sentence should be an exclamation mark (!). As the architecture of a city evolves, like a piece of prose, some "special" buildings can be commas, dashes, periods .and every once in a while, an exclamation mark where emphasis is truly needed or warranted (without making it feel like the city is screaming at you somehow from every direction). A controversial thought is whether there should be the occasional question mark in the urbanistic "sentence" . I'm reminded of the frequent comment by controversial English architect Will Alsop, designer of Toronto's OCAD building, that he designs on the basis of the " what the F*@$k is that??" principle, the idea that such a response to a building from a distance draws people toward it, and some buildings need that. In any case, over-use of the wrong punctuation type in a city can be as wrong as it is in a piece of prose, as it takes away from the clarity, and the legibility, that the author hopes to achieve. 

The word signature sometimes suggests to me the signature of the building use (i.e. a museum) or user (i.e. a corporate head office) that becomes part of the identity of the use or user. It can also be the signature of the site if the site has locational prominence or cultural memory to it. Too often it can end up being the signature of the architect, regardless of the genius loci, the spirit of the place they are working in. 

The word (and debate about) iconic though, at least to me, seems to have become largely about seeking attention. Icon is a powerful word, often associated with "uncritical devotion" or strong symbolism. And when architecture deliberately seeks to get attention, especially if it seeks to go beyond its location and context in the landscape, or its actual user or purpose, it often fails on many levels. And when it fails, it often exposes the desperation that led to it in the first place.  

I know this is perhaps my own personal interpretation of these four words - landscape, signature, punctuation, and iconic - and that others see them as perhaps interchangeable. Maybe we all have our own definitions (or baggage) around these somewhat subjective terms. I welcome other's perspective. 

But for sake of argument, if iconic is about attention, is designing with the goal of getting attention so bad? Perhaps not when under the right circumstances, but I keep coming back to a metaphor of show business. Many of the best artists - actors, musicians - don't seem to seek to be stars or celebrities, although many become just that. The best ones seem to just seek to do great art, and of these, some become stars, and many become well respected artists without great stardom - "actor's actor's" and such -, and some even become "cult favourites". Often though, the ones without longevity, the ones not taken seriously after a while, are the ones that sought stardom in the first place rather than seeking to do quality work.  

I think this can be true of architecture and public space design as well.  

Does that mean all starchitects (and a new term I heard recently in Europe, mas-STAR planners!) are like Paris Hilton, celebrity chasers seeking attention? Of course not. Many are great artists who have become stars because of the focus on their artistry, and many of their buildings have become icons because of how they are perceived by the public. But perhaps some of these artists are now trapped, just as some artists are in show business, because they are hired not to produce a stellar performance or a beautiful song, but rather to produce a "hit". Anything less than an icon is considered a disappointment to the client, because that is what they were hired for . not to produce exceptional architecture. 

But I digress. 

This issue of iconic is fresh in my mind, because the public discussion here in Vancouver on the subject is perhaps about to heat up. On Feb 1, I'll be participating on a panel in a public discussion (perhaps debate?) on the future of Vancouver architecture, with noted architects, patrons and critics, put on by Simon Fraser University's City Program with help from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. Its been advertised in large part as a discussion about Vancouver's lack of iconic architecture. 

Although I expect many architects, city planners, and designers to come, I truly hope it is broadly attended by the public, because I think this should be a public discussion in every city, based on its own values, psychology, and aspirations. 

In reference to this post's title, does Vancouver NEED iconic architecture? I'll show my hand in advance of the panel discussion - I don't think it does. Vancouver is a success because of who (and to some extent where) the city is, and the things we've collectively done well for generations around urbanism and livable, sustainable city-building. Our challenges into the future are big, and we have more important things to NEED. Does Vancouver WANT iconic architecture? I hope the public weighs in when special projects are proposed, and my initial thoughts on the matter are above. Any city that decides they want it should be sure they have considered whether that desire comes from an understanding of their values, and from a place of confidence rather than desperation. If we do decide we want it, I believe that because of our success in pattern building and urbanism, we are likely very well positioned, better than most cities, to benefit from strategic architectural punctuation points within our successful pattern, and I think such opportunities may be coming soon.  

Staying away from the "i-word" though, does Vancouver want something much simpler - more architectural variety, diversity, well-considered risk taking? I think we do. I'm looking forward to hearing what the crowd thinks here in Vancouver on Feb. 1st. 

For more information on the event at Simon Fraser University please click here:  

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



Agreed - Iconic Architecture fades

No city -needs- iconic architecture.

The great cathedrals are timeless, and have natural character, presence and class, because they relate to their surroundings. "Iconic" buildings made of glass and steel are made to stand out on purpose, and they don't fit in.

As humans, we don't naturally feel comfortable around what doesn't fit in. People feel at peace beside a serene lake, in a grassy meadow, or near/in a great cathedral, but not beside/around "iconic" buildings.

Furthermore, the public view of what is considered a "good" iconic building changes with the style du jour. Today's icon will become tomorrow's eyesore.

"It is only possible to make a place which is alive by a process in which each part is modified by its position in the whole." - Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Today's icon will become tomorrow's eyesore...

"Today's icon will become tomorrow's eyesore."

Or it can just as easily be said... Today's eyesore could become tomorrow's icon (TransAmerica Bldg. in SF or the Eiffel Tower to name a couple).

Christopher C.

TransAmerica Still An Eyesore

It doesn't work at all on the ground level. It blights historic Jackson Square next to it.

Stand on Washington St. next to the TransAmerica Pyramid, and you have a perfect example of the statement:

"Iconic buildings ... are made to stand out on purpose, and they don't fit in. As humans, we don't naturally feel comfortable around what doesn't fit in."

However, I think this statement only applies to modern iconic buildings. There are traditional buildings that are icons and that also fit in and are very comfortable to be near, such as St. Pauls in London or the main public library in New York.

Charles Siegel

TransAmerica pyramid a refreshing contrast...

One can quibble about the details of design and how it relates at street level (no worse than most other SF high-rises), but least the TransAmerica pyramid is a refreshing break and needed visual counterpoint (even after 40 years) to all the other non-descript 40-story boxes which clutter the SF skyline (thanks to the "design-by-committee" SF Planning bureaucracy).

TransAmerica Boring

I myself find the TransAmerica building just as boring an element of the skyline as the boxes - one meaningless geometric shape or another doesn't make any difference to my eye.

But the issue in this thread is not how it looks on the skyline but how it relates at street level. Look again at the statement in the post that you originally replied to:

"As humans, we don't naturally feel comfortable around what doesn't fit in. People feel at peace beside a serene lake, in a grassy meadow, or near/in a great cathedral, but not beside/around "iconic" buildings."

If people care about buildings work as abstract designs on the skyline and don't care about how it feels to be on the streets near those buildings, then they will obviously get a city that feels like an unpleasant place to be in.

There are some relevant pictures at (though I might have mentioned that link already).

Charles Siegel


Sorry... I should have known better than to include the TransAmerica pyramid in SF as an example of eyesore becoming icon (should have left it at the Eiffel Tower)... it's very PC for local planners (some of the same ones who brought us all those boring 40-story boxes to downtown SF) to diss TransAmerica. Perhaps the fact that it generates so much vitriol might actually enhance it's role as an architectural icon.

(Disclaimer: I probably do care somewhat about buildings "as abstract designs on the skyline" since I live high on a hill and look at the downtown SF skyline every time I look out the windows or go out on my deck.)

As for buildings which don't fit in, there are loads of them in downtown SF as I mentioned before, some far worse than TransAmerica at street level. And for those great cathedrals in Europe, many are gargantuan in scale compared to the neighborhoods and townscapes which surround them. In fact, they were built on purpose that way... as a means to reinforce the power of the Church (even to intimidate). Hundreds of years later, we have come to love them as architectural icons, forgetting the darker side of their history. (A good example is Chartres, which you can see from 20 miles away on a clear day, long before one sees an entire large (low-rise) town surrounding it.

TransAmerica vs. Cathedrals

The difference is that the cathedrals work both when you look at them in the distant skyline and when you are in the plaza standing right in front of them.

The pictures at show very clearly that this is true of St. Pauls in London, and it is very easy to search for pictures of the fronts of other European cathedrals.

By contrast, TransAmerica definitely doesn't work when you are standing next to it. I will take pictures next time I am in SF and post them, so people on the list can judge for themselves.

Whatever you think of its presence on the skyline, it does not create a good place for people to be, as St. Pauls and other European cathedrals do.

PS: I am not a "local planner" (I am a writer and not a planner at all) and I am certainly not a planner who brought 40-story boxes to SF.

Charles Siegel

pop culture ideas should never beat good planning

Iconic architecture is the discussion of the month right now and as pop culture ideas go we end up seeing everyone throw around the term without really thinking about it. As if to say if I am aware of the latest thing so therefore I am a smart on the edge thinker.

What your piece made me think about is the habit the profession should do more to discourage, namely; carrying the flag of the latest thing without a real understanding of the damage pop ideas can do. What I believe we a chance to really think about what we are advocating here. I found that this blog had a great flow where the conclusion was not in the final paragraph (like our high school English teachers taught us we had to do) but rather at a more sublime level the reader (at least me) could feel where you were going and thus finds the argument logical and agreeable.

From the economic development perspective the Bilbao effect is one that I have often advanced, backing it up with the stats and effects on tourism and job development. However, I than find I myself back tracking “good planning” into the discussion.

Perhaps the issue is that again (as in almost all things) what we need to be discussing is good planning. The principles of good urban design create economic development. However our examples are not as promoted or as concrete as Bilbao

Let me also suggest that Nelson BC and the main street revitalizations, Wellington New Zealand and there intensifications of historical districts, and Baltimore’s’ 80”s riverfront revitalization are all examples of good design leading economic development.

Barcelona has long been associated with punctuated events of design as economic development (the worlds fair and the Olympic each brought eye popping projects (Meis Van Der rohe, Richard Mier, Frank Gehry). But its Gold medal in architecture and urban resurgence was credited to a series of programs designed to embrace its old port and the water as the city form maker. The bridge at Gateshead UK is brilliant but it was the creative program of museums, connected and vibrant public spaces and funded artists to populate those spaces that made just as significant a contribution.

In each of the above one or more principles of good design (density, connectivity, mixed use, street form, vibrant public space) were combined to re-brand the area.

Foster’s Millennium Bridge over the Thames has been directly credited with a massive re-birth of the southbank. Having lived there 7 years ago, and visited twice since the bridge opened. The transformation is remarkable! The key here was connectivity pure and simple. Prior to the Bridge those millions of tourists at St Paul’s had no easy way across. Now it is impossible to be there and not be drawn over the water.

No rule against combining iconic with good design though. How much of the southbank effect was the bridge and how much was the iconic calling of the New Tate and the Millennium Eye.

I think if I could conjour the ghost of Lynch he would say “fear not the icon just keep it in balance”


Vancouver has an iconic piece of starchitecture, its the Vancouver Public Library which also happens to be a good piece of urbanism something that is quite rare for starchitecture.

I second the part that Vancouver is more about coherant urbanism that scream-in-your-face iconic buildings. I'm a big fan of Vancouver's point tower model, they are towers that work like fabric buildings... its as if Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier had a child it would be a Vancouver point tower with its podium of townhouses or retail.

If there was something that I think Vancouver could improve it would be adding more aesthetic variety to its successful Vancouverism point tower typology. I understand Robert Stern was promptly removed from planning the Olympic Village project for suggesting that Vancouver needed more variety (a.k.a. less curtain wall glass) on its skyline.

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