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In so many years of working as an architect, you realize you can learn a lot about the world based on what you get asked to build. So, it means a lot that, in recent years, we keep hearing variations on this question: how do you crown a city with a monument for the ages? How do you design an icon? This question betrays the shallowest instincts of our image-obsessed era, but it doesn’t need to go to waste. In a world oversaturated with urban clickbait, the projects that will actually stand out are those that rise to our era’s greatest challenges – starting from climate change.

Designing iconic architecture is hardly a new idea, but the rewards for doing so have never been higher. In the golden age of urban marketing and Instagram-driven tourism, cities across the world are competing to bolster their global image. The right icon is a symbol for cultural power, attracting tourists and capturing imaginations. Iconic projects are taking root wherever there is wealth, from emerging economies eager to make their mark to well-established Western countries hoping to refresh their old skylines.

Yes, icon hunger is everywhere, but we are only feeding it with junk food. Designers have embraced a simple, crass formula of staggering superlatives, whether in technical complication, formal invention, or sheer physical size. Rather than rising to new heights of innovation or beauty, the architectural profession is drowning in a sea of our own glitzy CGI renderings of futuristic towers. These unsubtle attempts have a way of producing underwhelming results; most brute-force icons of the last 20 years have failed to make any mark on the public consciousness.

So what is the difference between projects that fail and ones that succeed? Looking across history, it is striking that many lasting triumphs have emerged accidentally. Both the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye, for example, were only meant to be temporary installations. Deliberately-conceived icons, by contrast, struggle. For every London Eye there is an ArcelorMittal Orbit, the ugly tower that then-mayor Boris Johnson ham-handedly imposed upon London in hopes of bottling the lightning of other icons. Indeed, he insisted that his ugly contraption was “more interesting to look at than the Eiffel Tower.” It wasn’t.

A true icon, made intentionally or unintentionally, is compelling not because it pursues compelling-ness for its own sake but rather captures the zeitgeist, the spirit of its age. The Pyramids of Egypt were vital to that civilization’s cosmological orientation; their deep religious and cultural significance allowed the buildings to become the most lasting icon of a long-departed time. The Eiffel Tower was an early adopter of the iron age, seizing on a new era and becoming the most important visual representation of Paris and France itself. These projects succeeded because they borrowed from the fabric of their era to accrue cultural momentum, a dynamic force that has animated their cold walls for years to come.

What is the zeitgeist of today? What is the pressing question which architecture might answer? We have many possible options to choose from, but we would suggest focusing on just one: climate change. Humanity's tendency toward excess has resulted in more than garish towers; it has pushed the entire planet to the brink. The problem is universal, as shown by the floods that have struck Pakistan and Germany and the wildfires that blazed in Australia and California. Moreover, unlike the zeitgeists of previous eras, we can confidently predict that the climate crisis is not going away anytime soon. Absent extraordinary feats of geoengineering, the earth will keep warming every year for the rest of our lives. In this era of calamity, symbols of climate hope will be legible and necessary for everyone who sees them. If you build an icon on the foundation of sustainability, you are building something whose relevance will only grow for generations to come.

The practical demands of the crisis can be our aesthetic guide. Some have already realized the aesthetic potential of designs that incorporate a concern for the natural environment: it is part of why Stefano Boeri’s plant-covered towers in Milan, with all the controversy they have generated, have left a mark. But too many projects are dominated by dubious carbon accounting and paper-thin performances of sustainability. Amid this backdrop of greenwashing and self-promotion, the icons that will stand out are those that actually try to grapple with the climate change challenge.

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Rendering of Hot Heart, a competition-winning renewable energy concept for Helsinki. Image courtesy CRA - Carlo Ratti Associati

This, at least, is the path that CRA – Carlo Ratti Associati, the design office where one of us is involved, tried to follow when we entered a competition to improve sustainability in Helsinki. The goal was to reimagine the city's heating system, currently powered by coal-fired plants. To solve the intermittency of solar and wind power, we designed massive tanks of water, floating in the ocean, that act like a thermal battery. Renewable power heats the water to high temperatures, and when wind and sunlight are not available, the hot water gets pumped into homes. To cap it off, we imagined a geodesic dome directly above each tank – turning the batteries into year-round, sauna-like public parks. After our proposal won the competition, it quickly attracted more attention than almost any of our other projects. Climate change, as a universal challenge and a creative prompt, allowed us to develop an original, captivating design. It is yet to be built, but we envision a future where similar solutions can spread around the world.

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Image courtesy CRA - Carlo Ratti Associati

So, our call to the icon-builders of today is this: the best way to achieve your goals is to bind yourself to greater struggles. If you seek to inspire, then do so by focusing on the domains where we need inspiration. We need Eiffel Towers of climate innovation; we need Statues of Liberty to welcome our common destiny. The world has never faced the sort of poly-crisis it faces today, yet our profession is meeting the moment with narrow-minded exercises in posturing and frivolity. We could do so much more. Our desire to design, to build, and to leave a mark is inevitable – it is human. The question of our time is whether we can harness it for the benefit of humanity.