The Age of Spectacle: The Rise and Fall of Iconic Architecture – Tom Dyckhoff

Intuitively we all know what the term ‘iconic architecture’ means, we’ve seen enough of it to also know that it does not always mean good architecture. Actually, the more investors focus on the iconic aspect the worse the architecture usually becomes. Tom Dyckhoff tries to understand this phenomenon and its origins.

It was fun to read for me, as the main focus of Dyckhoff’s book is London, so I’ve seen the vast majority of the building he is writing about. He approaches his problem from many sides, often throwing in personal anecdotes and impressions to make it more relatable. Many of us still remember the world in which iconic buildings were few and far between, actually, this was one of the things that made them iconic. Now it feels like every year a new iconic building springs up in London. Here you can see how the London skyline will look in 2026, based on the buildings currently approved.

Dyckhoff writes how money now drives architecture. How since the ‘Bilbao effect’ everyone wants a piece. And how now it is perfectly possible to have your own iconic building as long as you have the money, and many people have the money, even if they lack taste. The role of an iconic building is to bring more money, to stand out, draw attention and with that draw in business. Architecture had a representative function for centuries, but now it got out of control, it is not one of the functions it became the main one. Often also it is not to represent what exists, the power of authority in place, it represents what is desired and dreamt of.

The book focuses heavily on the influence of capitalism and big money on architecture, shown nowhere better than in Dubai, which exploded with iconic buildings. But another aspect Dyckhoff explores is gentrification, though he uses the term rarely. He described the fight to save Covent Garden that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. This was completely new information for me, I was not aware that Covent Garden as I know it now is a completely artificial creation (though you can feel it when you focus there), I thought it was simply a case of reusing the old building. This book made me aware of the scale of change that took place here, including uprooting the entire community and completely changing the function of the buildings surrounding the market.

 Another aspect that Dyckhoff tackles in his book is shopping. The iconic architecture is not only designed to bring in big business, it often is designed specifically for retail, to create artificial spaces that feel familiar, but yet guide our eyes and our feet in the right direction, to make us buy more. Architecture now has to make a living, it has to pay off to exist. It has to draw us in and keep us, make an impression but also make us feel cosy, so we feel safe enough to keep spending. It’s not an easy task and also not one that automatically results in good architecture. Architecture is now focused on functions that could not be further from aesthetic. Not that the aesthetic was ever its key objective, the key objective was to provide shelter, but that is now also lost. Architecture has to make money now.

And that’s how we ended up in this mess, of buildings that set things on fire, because the architect did not expect so much sun in London, of buildings that look like butt cheeks or gigantic pair of pants. If the architecture is no longer built for people, but for money instead we lost the key focus.

Dyckhoff makes his argument in an entertaining way. The book is very easy to read, the only thing I wished for mas more illustrations because I ended up googling the buildings every five minutes. He does diagnose a problem but does not propose a solution, probably because there is no simple solution. If so much money is involved the government does not stand a chance.

On a side note, the building I dislike most in London is the Walkie-Talkie (with One Blackfriars being the close second). What is the building you dislike most in your city?

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska 

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