Death of the Icon
The student firmly raised his hand at the luncheon, catching my attention over the turkey sandwiches and cold drinks. We were there to talk, after all. Most of the questions thus far had been softball—related to publishing or favorite architects and their work, or to travel, but not to pushing the boundaries. He appeared eager and young. Then he spoke: “Can you tell me,” he asked, “why media like Architectural Record have continued to promote icons, when we are interested in a different kind of architecture today?” All eyes opened up around the long table, and heads seemed to be nodding. His curve ball had come from out of nowhere, but hit the mark.
After pausing a moment for reflection, the answer came, not so much as an emphatic reply, but rather as a series of rhetorical considerations. What, I asked, do you think the role of the media should be: to reflect the ideas of any given moment, to lead an audience in a specific direction, or a combination of the two? Second, what has been the meaning or role of architectural icons? And third, what are students interested in today? The delivery, I hoped, provoked speculation on the students’ part: I needed to know what was on their minds.
He was right, of course. Architectural Record had been party to celebrating the iconic projects of the past decade, and what a decade it had been. After a series of quiet years in the aftermath of a recession in the 1990s, 1997 brought Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a work of genius that galvanized professional and public attention and set a standard for works that would emerge in the decade of its aftermath. For the past 10 years of unprecedented material prosperity, record has faithfully recorded a cavalcade of singular, individualistic buildings that celebrated formal invention, exuberance, and innovation in building materials and systems, most of which reflected the advent and flowering of a new generation of computer-assisted design. Bilbao became a trophy for Spain, and a new image for a city and a region’s renaissance. We bore witness.
Today’s students, asserted my interlocutors, had moved beyond the icon, to a finer-grained architecture. Rather than focus on a structure’s immediate physical attributes, they maintained that chief among their interests was a matrix of concerns that, for want of terminology, could be described as humane. How did a given project fulfill its social contract for the community it was meant to serve? What sorts of relationships to the landscape, the neighboring buildings, the urban fabric, or the geographic region would a project create for its inhabitants? What alternatives could it pose for its users or clients? Could its initial agenda shift over time? As a fundamental, overriding question, how could a project be described as sustainable?
I puzzled over the students’ viewpoints, which seemed harmonious with those of another generation’s, perhaps more closely aligned with the activist periods of the late 1960s and ’70s that I had grown up with. What had caused this shift, if it was a shift at all? Perhaps the economic contractions of the previous year had altered the zeitgeist within the academic community, or perhaps the socially engaged, environmentally active movements of the last decade had simply taken root and had grown to an ascendant position.
The luncheon’s earnest tone struck a chord that would play out at architectural record. It immediately brought into question our coverage of Record Houses. Throughout its more than 50-year history, RECORD has written about the single-family house, for many of the reasons that we have written about all iconic architecture—as subjects of invention or fancy as well as shelter. Set in the landscape, tied to the automobile, the houses rarely exhibit relationships to other buildings and rarely expand beyond a single, social unit to include what we now label “multifamily.” Solo expressions of what Aalto called a “paradise,” they represent a small, shared set of dreams, by clients and their designers.
Although my university conversation suggests that we are entering a fresh scenario, a period where the rules, and the economics, of the game have changed, in this issue of Architectural Record, we unapologetically gather up iconic houses of the immediate past couple of years—when the icon clearly ruled. From little houses to the bodacious, they fairly jump off the page and computer screen, insistent and reminding us to pay attention: Design at Work. We can admire, even lust after them, as objects of desire and as representations of idealized form and fantasy, constructed for real people. Still, we must wonder what our ideal forms of shelter will consist of next year and decades hence, as our sensibilities and worldview shift with the next batch of student architects. I suggest a long lunch and conversation.
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