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Icon, Index, Digital
Charles Jencks's New Iconic Buildings

Mario Carpo

Nel suo recente best-seller Charles Jencks ritorna sui luoghi del suo primo delitto, l'invenzione del post-modernismo in architettura e la rivendicazione dei valori iconici del segno architettonico che risalgono al suo The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977). Non sorprendentemente, come già in un celebre saggio del 1984 ("The End of the Classical," Perspecta 21 (1984): 154-73) Peter Eisenman ha risposto a Jencks rivendicando il valore dell'indice contro quello dell'icona (vedi il dibattito che ne è seguito sulle pagine di Log: Peter Eisenman, "Duck Soup," Log 7 (2006): 139-141; Charles Jencks, and Mario Carpo, "Letters," Log 9 (2007): 7-12). Il tema dell'iconicità ("Iconic Turn", "Pictorial Turn") è al centro dell'attenzione della scienza delle immagini contemporanea (vedi in particolare i lavori recenti di Gottfried Boehm e di W.J.T. Mitchell). Come Peter Eisenman ha pertinentemente rilevato, le nuove tecnologie digitali stanno alterando l'equilibrio tradizionale fra icone, indici e simboli, ed i rispettivi modi di funzionamento delle tre categorie di segni che abbiamo ereditato dalla semiotica di Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Ma il libro di Jencks non è un libro di semiologia: è un libro sul nuovo Postmodernismo digitale degli anni Novanta, e sulle sue derive. Questa recensione è stata originariamente pubblicata in francese in L'Architecture d'Auhourd'hui 368 (2007): 4-5. [MC]

Charles Jencks famously started his advocacy of iconic architecture with his seminal The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977). According to the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), iconic signs resemble what they denote. An example well known to architects is a hot dog stand that looks like a giant hot dog. Peirce distinguished the icon from the index and the symbol, which rely on physical relations with what they signify, and conventions, respectively. If an architectural sign is iconic, we may infer its meaning by asking what it looks like, or brings to mind. When answers converge, the sign has a strong iconic component. Similar tests, known as Rorschach tests, are still used occasionally by psychoanalysts but with different purposes, as psychoanalysts are interested in the mind of the subject, not in the iconicity of objects.

Most casual observers, when asked about Norman Foster's Swiss Re skyscraper in London (2000-2004), would probably suggest that it looks like a penis, a cigar, a rocket ready for launch, or a gherkin. These similarities, and more, are investigated here by Charles Jencks, in writing and in drawing, courtesy of Madelon Vriesendorp's eloquent sketches. The iconic nature of architectural signs was widely debated in recent years, particularly in the seventies, when semiology was trendy. Jencks's return to the scene of his juvenile crime has revived that debate: Peter Eisenman recently revised and forcefully restated his plea for the index against Jencks's arguments for the icon, and more of this may follow. (1) This debate is welcome and necessary, as the new digital environment has critically altered the status of images and many of their functional processes. However, in spite of the title and of frequent references to semiotics, this is not what most of Jencks's book is about.

Jencks reviews some of the most famed buildings of the last fifteen years, and a few older ones, but his discussion of their iconic nature refers more to the general than to the technical meaning of the term: Jencks's iconic buildings are "shock and awe" buildings; buildings that "stand out from the crowd." Those that actually look like something else are a special category, a subset (the "iconic icons"). The paragon of all iconic buildings is Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1993-97); the eponym "Bilbao Effect" (an expression attributed to Peter Eisenman) characterizes the process, eminently successful in Bilbao, whereby an otherwise almost gratuitous building becomes a world star because it looks strange.

Among the precursors Jencks cites Le Corbusier's Ronchamp and Utzon's Opera House in Sydney (to both of which some degree of real semiotic iconicity must be granted); successful icon makers of our times include, alongside Gehry, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas (with special mention for his Seattle Public Library and the China Central Television Building in Beijing), Santiago Calatrava, Will Alsop, and Zaha Hadid. Some would-be icon makers are also named, and credit is paid to Eisenman's special role as an icon-maker malgré soi. The book also includes well-informed commentaries on the history of the reconstruction of Ground Zero and on Enric Miralles's Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Jencks is a delightful story-teller, always eloquent, often moving and sometimes appropriately hilarious, and he hits the mark when he highlights the recent proliferation of celebrity buildings that appear to exist only to show the eccentricity of their forms, and derive their primary raison d'être from this race toward the uncommon: in the words of Deyan Sudjic (whom Jencks seems to have chosen as his favorite antagonist) hyperinflation of expression devalues urban currency, and turns world cities into world fairs. With some logic, in a historical chapter at the end of the book Jencks identifies the Eiffel Tower as the prime and ultimate iconic building.

Jencks's judgment of the iconic building is more complex than it may appear at face value. On one side, the recent flourishing of architectural icons ("iconic icons" and common icons alike) vindicates his long-standing defense of iconic values in architecture - starting with his invention of post-modernism in the seventies. At the same time, Jencks sees the recent proliferation of architectural icons as both a sign of a long-term global trend ("with commercial and spiritual reasons") and the effect of an ideal vacancy, the disappearance of strong beliefs and the collapse of global ideologies that characterized the end of the millennium. This might taint the iconic phenomenon with more than a suspicion of vacuity, and indeed Jencks himself sometimes seems to be longing for, or hinting at, some stronger spiritual inspiration. But the nineties (broadly defined as the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York) were not an age without ideologies. They were an age when some old and well-established ideologies were replaced by new ones. These new ideologies provided the ideological environment where the iconic phenomenon that Jencks describes could rise to preeminence.

Many in the early nineties thought that Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" simply meant that liberalism had won the Cold War. Neoliberalism, then ubiquitous and rampant, crossed paths with various forms of new subjectivism that were growing in the arts and humanities, and more crucially with the new digital technologies (or the digital revolution, as it was then called) that would mark the end of the millennium - in the financial markets no less than in architectural theory and practice. The architectural expression of these tendencies was a generalized pursuit of difference in design. Economy and society were all for it; and digital technologies promised to deliver endless variations at no extra cost. This quest for variation was one of the engines of the digital revolution in architecture. Regardless of its diverse technological and formal avatars (from non-standard seriality to digital baroque, from market-driven mass-customization to computer-based organicism and expressionism), a strong individualistic vein prompted and set the tempo of the first stages of the digital revolution in architecture. One needs reasons to mass-produce variations - in addition to new machines that can do that quickly and cheaply.

This individualistic bias, which we can now better assess in retrospect, had occasional extreme and irrationalist overtones. Part Ayn Rand, part Richard Powers, it verged on a delusion of technological omnipotence, and it revived the old myth of the Promethean creator as one man against all: against society, against tradition, against convention, against common sense, against the laws of physics and statics. This new digital Übermenschlichkeit was then in the spirit of the time: many advocated it, and even Jencks concedes that some "will to artistic power" must have been at the root of this iconic quest for excess in building -the most frightening cantilever, the frailest looking stilts or pinnacles, the most outrageous and unbuildable form, the most unlikely building materials (from titanium to rough felt and sponge- or something meant to look like that), the most improbable locations (underwater, underground, in the desert, in the jungle, atop a ski hill), (2) etc. Jencks suggests that the first 'iconic' architect might have been Vitruvius's Dinocrates. Naked but for a lion skin draped over his left shoulder, and brandishing a club, he almost persuaded Alexander the Great to build a useless city in the form of its ruler atop Mount Athos.

Alexander never built that city, and the nineties ended on September 11, 2001. The age of excess and exuberance ended in disaster and in disorder. Some of the buildings that were conceived in the nineties are being inaugurated now, and Jencks's book belongs to that decade, which it describes. This may be one reason why Jencks fails to register the ideology underpinning the events that he so brilliantly epitomizes: ideologies are often better seen from afar. Digital technologies are here to stay, but it is too soon to tell if the motivations that prompted their adoption may be revived, or will be replaced, when the dust of the nineties finally settles.

Mario Carpo

1. See Peter Eisenman, "Duck Soup," Log 7 (2006), 139-143.  
2. See the ideal complement to Jencks's book, the exhibition "The Guggenheim Architecture," Bonn, Kunsthalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 26 September to 12 November 2006, and the accompanying exhibition catalogue (New York: the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and Bonn: Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutscheland, 2006).

  ARCH'IT books consiglia:

Charles Jencks
"Iconic Building"
Rizzoli, 2006
pp224, $35.00 $25.55

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