After Adam's last two thoughtful posts, I thought I should weigh in here being the resident urban design on Tech Talk. In general, I sometimes share others concerns with marquee architecture but usually when its seen as a way of boosting economic development or the status of a city. I think in those cases, there are far better ways to boost the livability and physical appearance of a place. Thinking of what an "icon" for say, Fort Wayne, would be is an uninteresting question as that city faces other underlying issues that a marquee project simply can't address.
That said, I have real problems with the littany of "modernism was a failure" critiques. I once heard a lecture by a well known urbanist who started to lay out a very scientific way of looking at cities. He argued that certain patterns of living have evolved over time and should not be disregarded wholesale for completely new urban forms. Thats fine except that he was basing his views on a very specific aesthetic - one that stipulated that architects should never use steel and glass for style. My problem here is that modernism (at least as I define it beyond the urban renewal categorization) needs to evolve as well. Steel and glass and other materials will slowly evolve in use and application to be interesting and new elements to the city. If we curtail that evolution, are we not just trying to cement our cities in time. Its always good to remember that at first the Parisians thought the Eiffel Tower was an insult to the city. It remained because Gustav Eiffel argued it served other more functional pruposes.
In the end, marquee architecture accounts for so little of whats actually built. Our main issues rest in improving the design of our everyday architecture from homes to commercial buildings. I would hope that planners and architects keep an open mind as I believe any interesting city needs to show its evolution over time, mistakes and all. Further, excellence in design is the real issue. We too often accept 'safe' architecture that mimics a local historic aesthetic as opposed to something that adds value by approaching the needs, function and style as something unique. This doesn't mean every development should be avant garde, but having flexibility to experiment is critical in cultivating a better attitude toward architecture and urban design.
The real failure of modernism came from the fact that it was carried out in a top-down manner resulting in monolithic approaches. We have a growing grassroots movement in cities across the country that presents a real opportunity for evolving our design pallete in ways that matches the cities we want with those we need.
Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.