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The Age of the Icons


A recent meme showed two pictures of the London skyline 20 years apart. In the first photograph the Canary Wharf tower is the single tallest building. Today it is joined by an array of glass and steel monoliths once memorably described as ‘a car boot sale of kitchen stuff’: the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin, the Can of Ham, the Salt Cellar etc. All lay claim to iconic status – some more successfully than others.

Every corner of Britain it seems has wanted its own stand-out landmark to convey sophistication, success, proof of urban renewal. Something to put a city or region firmly on the map.

A new book, Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain by John Grindrod, is a revealing round robin of the phenomenon.

When Anthony Gormley was commissioned to design an iconic symbol for Gateshead/Newcastle and the north east of England his Angel of the North (1998) was widely derided. The enormous standing figure with what appeared to be aeroplane wings for arms was described by one critic as ‘not a work of art but a monstrosity’.

Now, almost 25 years on, it’s a well-loved emblem that’s known the world over. Since it appeared, Newcastle has added other architectural symbols of self-confidence: the Sage Centre for Music and the winking bridge.

Resurgent nationhood as much as National Lottery cash has given Scotland some of its most recent iconic buildings. The Scottish Parliament (2004) at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh proved controversial as much for its overrunning costs (10 times more than originally budgeted for) as its uncompromising design.

From the time plans were unveiled it was widely criticised and disliked. Spanish architect duo Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue had created something said to have been more appropriate for Andalucia than Auld Reekie. Nearly 20 years on the building is as representative of Scotland as the Forth Bridge or the Stirling Monument.

Despite art critics being sniffy about the Insta-ready Kelpies by Andy Scott, sited in Grangemouth, the two giant 30 metre horse heads were instantly taken to the public’s hearts. Such acclaim is something for which many an architect strives.

Sometimes they strive too hard. The redevelopment of Edinburgh’s old St James shopping centre has as its showpiece the conspicuous hotel with a shiny curlicue on top. It was immediately ridiculed and dubbed the Golden Turd. It remains to be seen whether the structure will, in years to come, be a national treasure or remain a carbuncle.

‘The “golden turd” forms the tip of an iceberg of poor-quality architecture and planning in the Scottish capital, which extends from substandard new residential districts to lumpen office complexes and unsympathetic renovations of older buildings’, wrote Owen Hatherly in a 2017 article in Prospect magazine; entitled Architecture: The Slow Ruin of Edinburgh.

Hatherly was equally scathing of the redevelopment of the docklands and Western Harbour in Leith and the harbour in neighbouring Granton, ‘which were filled, especially in the years before the financial crash of 2008, with an indifferent landscape of speculative apartment buildings, miserable pseudo-public spaces, introverted shopping malls, all using poor materials which have worn appallingly in the harsh North Sea climate’. There’s precious little that’s iconic in the soulless redevelopment going on at Edinburgh’s Haymarket.

Leith has long battled the town planners, consultants, developers and architects. ‘In the age of the icon’, writes Grindrod, ‘we don’t build what we need, we build dreams… as our basic rights are ever more under attack, the aspirations of today are peculiar fantasies indeed. Smart homes. Self-driving cars. The avatars of success. Forget that homelessness and genuine hardship stalk the land’.

It was the northern Spanish city of Bilbao that showed how an iconic building could help reinvent a city. The dying, post-industrial port, Spain’s second largest city, was not a natural choice for an outpost of the Guggenheim Museum. But the eye-catching finished building by American architect Frank Gehry – a sculptural, shining titanium leviathan – became an immediate hit gaining instant world attention.

It was promptly named one of the most influential buildings of modern times by the Guardian whose Rowan Moore added: ‘It gave its name to the Bilbao Effect; a phenomenon whereby cultural investment and showy architecture is supposed to equal economic uplift’.

The point being that fandabidozy architecture alone cannot cure a city’s ills. Investment and infrastructure are just as important. That said, Bilbao showed that an icon could give a city new confidence, attract business and help it become a tourist destination.

‘The process through which public authorities procure building work has become riddled with lethal incompetence and institutionalised negligence’, wrote architecture critic Oliver Wainwright recently. ‘It is a process of contractual buck-passing that sees a project divided into numerous separate “packages”, from which the maximum number of consultants can profit – while the public loses out on quality, safety and value’. ■


Info: Iconicon by John Grindrod £20 is available from

John Grindrod below


Hatherly was equally scathing of the redevelopment of the docklands and Western Harbour in Leith and the harbour in neighbouring Granton


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