From Architecture to Icon

Symbols of Civilisation

Throughout time and space we have marked our civilisations with memorable and instantly recognisable structures. Today, we need only hear the name of a country or city for an image of a building to appear in our minds. Paris and the Eiffel Tower, for instance, or Greece and the Parthenon, Sydney and the Sydney Opera House, Kuala Lumpur and the Petronas Towers, Egypt and the pyramids – each one of these architectural wonders is firmly rooted within a clear, collective identity. Each of these examples – and countless others – has created a landmark and a symbol for an entire civilisation, nation, or people.

The power of these man-made symbols of civilisation to provide identity and inspiration is indisputable. There is no argument that the Golden Gate Bridge is inherently linked to San Francisco, for instance – or that this architectural marvel attracts ongoing adoration by tourists and locals alike. What does beg questioning, however, is why landmark structures have transcended the ranks of ordinary buildings to become icons. Indeed, many of the buildings in this category appear to have very little in common. They may be historical or modern. They may be ludicrously elaborate or wondrously simple. They may be garish, ugly even – or achingly beautiful. They are not necessarily the tallest, or the largest, or the oldest, or the newest – although any one of these attributes could be the factor that makes a structure iconic.

The Burj Khalifa, which has become synonymous with the architectural extravagance and luxury of Dubai, demonstrates the power that comes with being the first to accomplish an engineering landmark. For, the reason that this tower has become representative of Dubai over any number of other impressive structures is surely the fact that it is currently the tallest building on the planet – a mind boggling 828 metres high. The Empire State Building also earned its place in history – and as New York City’s iconic building – by being the tallest building in the world upon its completion in 1930. Of course, the skyscraper’s grand Art Deco design may have helped seal its fame as well. Regardless, the landmark tower was soon named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers – and has certainly lived up to this recognition.

Of course, not all structures designed to achieve an historic first become landmark structures. And ironically, when structures are created with a specific goal or message in mind, the buildings may not actually be remembered for their original intention. Take the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, for instance – this pyramid shaped monstrosity was designed to showcase the power of North Korea to the world. Instead, it has been an unmitigated failure – a fact which has earned the building icon status and made it the symbolic representative of North Korea’s infamously oppressive government and failed economic policies.

Construction on the hotel was quickly stymied for lack of funds and this monument to greatness remained an empty shell for decades, earning the moniker “The Worst Building in the World” and the “Hotel of Doom”. Construction resumed again in 2008, however, and the grand opening is slated for next year. But don’t make a reservation quite yet – a 1990s inspection by a European delegation declared that the building (or shell, to be precise) should be demolished due to poor-quality concrete and crooked elevator shafts.

Sometimes the failure itself is perceived as a positive attribute worthy of veneration. Indeed, an unexpected mishap may, in fact, rocket a structure to fame. It is doubtful, for example, that the town of Pisa would be recognisable around the world if it weren’t for its icon’s famously precarious tilt. Other landmark structures that were built with the express purpose of being unforgettable – and were completed successfully – still might be remembered for a different reason than intended. For instance, the Egyptian Pyramids were erected to serve as an everlasting reminder of the greatness of the rulers buried within them. And yet, few people today could name the pharaohs for whom they were actually built. These men may have once been revered as gods, but their accomplishments have largely been lost to shifting sands and changing times. Instead, these monuments now serve as a universal symbol of Egypt rather than as tributes to specific men. Likewise, the Taj Mahal is an unmistakable symbol of India – not of Mumtaz (the Mughal emperor’s favourite wife), for whom the building was built to entomb and forever memorialise. Indeed, it seems that the beauty and wonder of some iconic structures actually upstage the people these buildings were designed to venerate, ironically defeating the very purpose of the beauty.

Like the Egyptian Pyramids, many ancient structures have earned icon status because of their astonishing age and relatively advanced construction techniques. We cannot help but marvel over the accomplishments our ancestors achieved without modern equipment, or relish the connection to a civilisation that has been lost to the ravages of time. And, we cannot help reassigning meaning to these artefacts in order to create brick and mortar ambassadors for a particular city or nation.

Stonehenge, for instance, still captivates us 5,000 years after its construction began. It has also become inexorably associated with the UK; indeed, the rock and earth formation is arguably Britain’s greatest national icon. And no wonder – its builders managed to hoist stones weighing as much as 50 tons each with amazingly primitive tools. In fact, the earthworks surrounding the stones were most likely created using the antlers of red deer and the shoulder blades of cattle!

Whether ancient or relatively modern, a structure’s religious value may also endow it with icon status and tie it to a certain location. For instance, St Peter’s Basilica has become a powerful symbol of Vatican City. The Hagia Sophia is inevitably linked to Istanbul. The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela are uniquely Ethiopian.

An innovative design or concept can also earn a building icon status. The Gateway Arch has become an icon of the American city Saint Louis simply because of its unusual shape. The 630 foot high monument to westward expansion even has a specially designed lift to take visitors to the top – the tram must move diagonally to follow the arc of the structure. Or, take St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Its whimsical onion domes and swirling colours could be straight out of a fairy tale. The eye catching architecture is instantly recognisable and indisputably Russian.

Uniquely designed buildings earn particularly high levels of admiration when there is a distinct contrast between the structure and its surroundings – or an artful blending of the two. The Sydney Opera House is a perfect example of both. Its startling design stands in contrast to the surrounding buildings – or virtually any other building worldwide – while simultaneously blending in with the harbour through its suggestion of billowing sails.

Any number of reasons could be given to explain the transformation from mere building to internationally recognised icon. With so many different iconic structures in so many extraordinary shapes and forms, it is virtually impossible to find a single common bond that links them all – save the fact that they have all become iconic. Maybe, then, the focus should not even be on why these structures have become symbols. Instead, perhaps, we should simply appreciate these magnificent structures for what they are and who they represent.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 17, 2019, 4:55 AM AEDT