tvsdesign, Dubai Towers, 2008, Dubai. Rendering.

tvsdesign, Dubai Towers, 2008, Dubai. Rendering.

Bernard Tschumi

tvsdesign, Dubai Towers, 2008, Dubai. Rendering.

With its undulating sculptural form—which can be interpreted as evoking a string of pearls—this building will be one of the city’s most poetic structures. It will also be an example of cutting-edge sustainable design. Its translucent skin will feature a high-performance exterior wall that controls the transfer of heat and light from outside with light-sensor-activated shades. Adding visual excitement to the building skin, revolving photovoltaic panels will harvest solar energy.

—Presentation text of a typical architectural competition project ca. 2008

AT A RECENT INTERNATIONAL architectural competition, a local politician demanded to choose the winning projects himself. A three-minute photorealist computer animation was required from each of the invited competitors. While a technical-review board analyzed each project in depth, the politician barely glanced at its reports, instead looking at the short animations and making his decision almost immediately, saying that what the project looked and “felt” like was all that mattered to him.

Many architectural competitions and commissions worldwide are now decided in this manner—i.e., not by a serious jury of peers or knowledgeable individuals after a proper review, but rather based on the whim of a politician, magnate, or relatively uninformed museum board. Works are increasingly selected based on an impression conveyed through hyperrealist images joined with the inevitable caption about sustainable design.

Despite economic ups and downs, such projects keep being built, not only in Dubai, Mumbai, and Shanghai but also in Europe and the United States. They are described in press releases as “iconic,” and this description is a direct reflection of their clients’ demands. The projects are almost always tape-à-l’oeil, as the French say, meaning “hitting you straight in the eye.” This expression is most commonly translated in other languages as “kitsch.”

One would be hard-pressed to write a definitive statement about either the needs society expresses through such works or the common denominator or style—which I will refer to here as iconism—that they represent. (Iconism’s dictionary definition describes it first as “the formation of a figure.” I would suggest extending the definition to the style that values spectacular forms and figures in the design of buildings.) Much of iconism displays grandiloquent effects that are often directly enabled by new digital technologies, with a marked preference for twisted, decorative surfaces. In many ways, iconism is the exact opposite of an older but still prevalent architectural ism, namely, minimalism. Both isms share an equal hold on contemporary taste, with a definite advantage for iconism when it comes to towers, concert halls, and sports arenas. Museums seem equally divided between the two.

Given the cyclical nature of public taste, it is not surprising that a predilection for kitsch and decoration, largely dormant since 1980s historicist postmodernism, is returning. What is surprising, however, is how easily iconism is recognized, in both senses of the word. Visually, we know it when we see it. As a value system, iconism strives to achieve the popular recognition of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim Bilbao, or the Gherkin in London, each instantly identifiable as a sign of a now familiar cultural legacy.

To produce instantly recognizable artifacts, iconism must constitute a system of pure, conventional symbols, often falling back on preexisting images or clichés—a flower, a bird’s nest, a Chinese hat, an egg. As opposed to the architect’s patient search for functional, social, or material solutions that will result in conceptual and/or visual beauty, iconism is a closed system that puts the result before the process. Its predefined formula rarely leads to innovative thinking.

In a remarkable talk at Yale University in 1950, later published as Notes on the Problem of Kitsch, the Austrian critic and thinker Hermann Broch suggested that the Romantic period contained two main categories of works: those with nearly cosmic aspirations (for example, music by Wagner and Tchaikovsky), and those that were kitsch. Are Wagner and Tchaikovsky represented today by Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry in their “cosmic” presence, while mass-media publishing houses specialize in disseminating architectural kitsch? Broch argued that whenever icons slip away from genius, they fall into kitsch: There is nothing in between.

Architectural iconism and kitsch nevertheless would not exist if there were not kitsch producers, as well as consumers who yearned for kitsch and were willing to pay for it. Despite the critical reluctance expressed here, I, along with several of my respected colleagues, sometimes like what we see in our “iconic” world, almost as if we were predisposed to it. One reason may be that the world of images and visual media is the world we live in. But does this mean that the position staked out by Artforum fifty years ago in the heyday of Conceptual and Minimalist art has been defeated by the forces of consumption and architourism, as new modes of digital delectation have replaced more abstract investigations?

When a politician judges a work of architecture based on a three-minute computer animation, he not only brazenly ignores the fact that his decision may eventually involve hundreds of millions of dollars and whole communities but suggests that architecture has become an image discipline, in which achieving an “iconic” beauty is the starting point for all projects, and marketing devices have become more important than generative concepts. In consequence, commercial promotion techniques not only affect architecture but increasingly become the architecture, as architects hire market-research, public-relations, and communication professionals to explain their architectural projects to others, thus ensuring these works’ frictionless circulation in the media. Will critics and historians someday describe the proponents of the new mass-media kitsch as “the Iconists,” much as other isms have historically carried both negative and positive connotations, from Impressionism to formalism and so on?

Perhaps, faced with such imagistic and media excess, we should remember the importance of thought in relation to how buildings actually work. At its best, architecture creates concepts and materializes them; it is not only about perceptions and affects, but also about ideas. It is not only about what a building looks like, but also about what it does in social, political, and cultural space.