Notes on Charles Jencks
Jencks makes that point that while the architectural icon is nothing new, a new form of it has emerged recently. Strictly speaking, icons are defined by their “similitude” to something, like a footprint in the sand, a painting of a saint, or a formal evocation of a cultural concept. A good icon is a minimal or condensed image, like the ancient Egyptian pyramids are of a funeral pyre. In general then, the perfect icon is perfectly reductive to pure exchange value; function and material value are not important to the icon per se, as can be noted especially when the functioning is made to be part of the icon.
This new form of iconic architecture thrives on media attention, and in many respects that is its function. The buildings are commissioned with this aim, and the architect becomes the agent in the image creation. The media attention produces the exchange value of the building by rendering it into a marketing tool, that is, reducing it to its exchange value. Early examples include Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, in which the architectural hype was a global phenomenon, Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, whose media attention was effective in drawing world attention and tourism all the way around the globe, and Gehry’s Bilbao Museum, whose worldwide image transformed the city of Bilbao into a post-industrial service and tourism-centered city. In some sense, these buildings operate in much the same way as the Egyptian pyramids—as pure iconic forms, as pure signs.
There are important differences with the traditional icon, however. Firstly, traditional icons establish and exist within a hierarchy of symbols (the Pyramids are at the top of this hierarchy). Secondly, the icons draw on the public realm. Thirdly, they form the public realm.
The contemporary architectural icon, like other icons in culture (just turn on the TV…) operates in transgression of these principles. Buildings as signs are produced for individual economic effect, and their images are currency within the international economy. Jencks terms this type of icon as “the democratic icon,” not referring to the political factor so much as the individual factor. The icons pander to popular sentiment, aim at causing upset, overturning conventions, challenging hierarchy, and utilizing paranoia (that is, the negative reactions against them) to their media advantage. Evidence of this is that iconic buildings each have their media epithet that reduces them into a condensed image: “shard,” “erotic gherkin,” “crystal beacon.” “Shock and awe” is the aim, as seen in projects such as Selfridges. Jencks asks, is “this radical form of democracy and egalitarianism… [this] rampant individualism killing the public realm?”
As Rem Koolhaas puts it, “shopping is doubtless the last form of public activity,” which we excoriates in “Junkspace.” Nevertheless, architecture is forced to embrace it, even if it is in a mode of subtle disgust or subversion, as one might interpret OMA’s approach. In The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Rem drives home the point of the total commercialization of all culture, and he laments the role of the architect in this to be primarily the producer of the image and the icon. In Jenck’s view, this is what gives rise to the new form of architectural icon.
The new form of architectural icon has another important characteristic, beyond simply that it is commercial, what Jencks terms “the enigmatic signifier.” This form of icon is metaphorical in more indirect, enigmatic ways, avoiding obvious associations, direct historical references, but instead open to, but carefully guiding interpretations. They are like substrates or magnets to embody whatever the subject ascribes to them. Jencks claims the “enigmatic signifier” is symptomatic of “the loss of content” (referring to the disappearance of belief and the need for inflationary symbols to replace fill this cultural void) combined with the egoism of commercial interests (which can profit from the inflationary symbol). In other words, the enigmatic signifier has deep roots in the commercial reality of the late-capitalist global economy, and the innate human religiosity and spiritualism. The absence of strong belief in any metanarrative, ideology, or religion, and the resulting decline of religious and historical iconographies has characterized postmodern culture for many decades, Jencks argues. Thus the there is a very strong motivation for the iconic building to become an enigma.
So, what is a good enigmatic signifier? In recognition of the spiritual component of the enigmatic signifier, Jencks postulates that a successful icon is:
-stands out from the background/city
-is a condensed/minimal image
-symbol fit for worship
But he cautions that the architect must carefully negotiate the metaphorical associations, such that they are both obvious and veiled, connoting, but not explicit. Moreover, it works best when the symbolism underlines the symbolic program of the building.
-obvious and veiled simultaneously
-systematic and layered
-related to popular images or conceptions
-related to symbolic program
For example, the icon is employed masterfully in some public buildings, which removes for the moment the commercial factor. In Le Corbusier’s Chandigahr Assembly Building, locally-inspired symbolism is multi-layered with multiple references, as well as with functional considerations. The bull-horn shape in the front is a sunshade against the very strong local sun, as well as collecting rain from the intense monsoon, channeling it into a reflecting pool (water is sacred too). The dome on the top represents democracy, contains a cooling tower, as well as makes reference to the sun, which in local tradition is the source of all power. In addition he uses a plethora of abstract imagery on the interior. The same analysis goes for Ronchamp, in which the symbolism is so evocative, yet nondescript that it is an enigmatic signifier. It draws imagery from nature, traditional churches, and it also highly personal to Le Corbusier: a “psychological work”, not explicitly Catholic, thus underlining the enigmatic aspect. Similarly, in Norman Forster’s Reichstag Dome, powerful yet indirect historical imagery is used in the glass dome, and symbolic program is used in the intermixing of public programs and the government functions.
But these successful icons have preconditions that are not able to be satisfied within the commercial context, which is what leads often to the "enigmatic signifier." They are based on the preconditions that:
-the people believe in something
-there is a developed idea about how to represent their faith
-the architect can carry through the symbols
In contrast, in Brasilia, large abstract forms are one-liners open to misinterpretation. Boston City Hall is likened to a fortress, and Norman Foster’s London City Hall is likened to a testicle, malapropistic metaphors. These have no “iconographic program” and no “systematic symbolism,” “expressive form with the wrong kind of content.”
Rem’s 1978 work Delirious New York somewhat presages this discussion of the enigmatic signifier. Rem points to the symbolistic autonomy of the self-contained interiorized mega-buildings of New York, attempted to find within the complex interiority and non-relational atomized condition of the city a new way to relate to symbolism. The contemporary skyscraper is seen as a totally out-of-date, in denial of its real identity and functioning. In CCTV in Beijing, Rem turns this logic into a powerful enigmatic symbol, to use Jenck’s term. “Kill the Skyscraper,” turning it in to a mutant hybrid that optimizes the symbolic value of its true identity and interior functioning. Its centralized nature, its continuous, connected program, overturn the image of the skyscraper, turning it into an interiorized icon. Is power is underlined by a strong form whose holistic nature is assured by a structural logic. Moreover, it has overtones pertinent to China and the media is its totalitarian completeness, and contains imagery of a moongate, an empty TV, a Chinese bracelet, etc.