2009 National Planning Conference: Closing Keynote Address

Witold Rybczynski

By Joseph A. MacDonald, AICP
APA Program Development Senior Associate

Professor, author, essayist, and critic Witold Rybczynski explored the unexpected ways buildings become icons in his closing keynote speech to the 2009 National Planning Conference in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

In his address, "When Buildings Try Too Hard: Icons, Instant Icons, Failed Icons and Anti-Icons," Rybczynski, the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, entertained the audience with a tour through dozens of famous and infamous architectural creations whose perpetrators strove for iconic status and either achieved it, failed to achieve it, or shunned the goal completely.

Among buildings with iconic status, Rybczynski offered the Eiffel Tower in Paris (icon of the gay, carefree, beautiful life), Empire State Building in New York (icon of utility), Buckingham Palace in London (icon of loyalty), the White House in Washington (icon of a president), and the Washington Monument (icon of a nation).

However, Rybczynski noted, those five examples were never designed as icons, but earned their  status over time. Thus architects do not create icons — the public does. How to know? Rybczynski's tongue-in-cheek litmus test: Iconic buildings are sold in miniature or crafted into salt shakers for gift shop souvenirs.

The Sydney Opera House in Australia was iconic by the time of its completion in 1973, in part because of the 17 years needed to finish the job. Stirling's completion of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany, drove up attendance so much that the museum became the third most popular in the country upon completion in 1984. The "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium in Beijing, China, completed for the 2008 Olympics, is an icon of "old" and "new" China in the 21st century, but its status could be lost if the stadium is not put to use. That was the fate of the 1976 Olympic Stadium in Montreal, whose utility was compromised by problems with its retractable roof.

There are many failed icons throughout the world. Rybczynski offered this travelogue:

While Breuer's Cesca Chair from 1928 is still considered a great success, the 1960s post-modernist inspired headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has fallen out of favor in the current society. Other such "brutalist" buildings, with their heavy poured concrete, remain only because demolition is expensive.

The 1960s Kennedy Center in Washington was intended to be an icon for the late President John F. Kennedy, but it contains no vestige of the president's legacy or the events surrounding his assassination. While productive as a concert hall, the building does not fulfill its original purpose.

The Opera Bastille in Paris was completed by an inexperienced and unknown design competition winner who created an acoustic space that one performer likened to "singing in a gymnasium." The Denver Art Museum leaks, and the odd angles of its walls make it difficult, if not impossible, to display art. The Experience Music Project in Seattle drew poor attendance, could not maintain its function as a music museum, and drew even harsher comparisons when cast alongside the iconic 1960s Space Needle.

Rybczynski gives credit to those architects who do not try to accomplish the feat of creating an instant icon, but go another way. These buildings include Philadelphia Symphony Hall, with its billboard-like display of a portion of musical score dominating the facade; the rustic barn-shaped Seiji Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood, Massachusetts; and the aircraft hangar-cum-art museum, Sainsbury Centre, in Norwich, England.

Some architects shoot for iconic elements within an otherwise un-iconic building and may have considerable success, such as the iconic lobby or foyer for the music and performing arts center at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Rybczynski hopes iconic buildings will disappear. He blames clients and patrons for pressuring architects to concoct such structures and for giving them a "license to kill."

The current global economic crisis and shifting priorities may provide an opportunity to rethink and scale down future buildings, including the single-family residence. The new architecture may focus more on being green or modest. But only the only the public will decide.

Send an e-mail to WebsiteEditor@planning.org for permission to reprint this article.