Does Vancouver need (or want) Iconic Architecture?

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.  

7 minute read

January 21, 2008, 3:25 PM PST

By Brent Toderian

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

Brent is President of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS in Vancouver, Canada, and has over 24 years experience in advanced and innovative urbanism, city-planning and urban design. He advises cities & innovative developments all over the world, from Ottawa to Oslo, from Sydney to Medellin, from Auckland to Helsinki.

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