Jencks: The Iconic Building is Here to Stay
Okay, so Charles Jencks didn't have much to say Monday night about how iconic buildings can fit into the Philadelphia grid. Instead, he spent his time arguing that the obsession with eye-catching architecture - like the obsession with Hollywood celebrities - is here to stay.
Jencks is most famously the author of "The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism," but his latest book is devoted to the growing hunger for iconic buildings. The most interesting idea he offered on Monday was that iconic buildings came to the fore when western religion lost control of the dominant cultural narative. Think of Quasimodo and Esmerelda, who could read Notre-Dame's facade as if it were a book. How many can understand a religious building that way today? Society is just too fractured and there are multiple, competing narratives. Today, Jencks argues, people are eagerly seduced by designers who offer the most persuasive and entertaining architectural narratives. Jencks might have take this even further. The irony is that these highly individualist expressions actually satisfy a deep public yearning. When they succeed, as Rem Koolhaas' Seattle library does, it's because they supply a common narrative that binds a community together.
Incidentally, as Jencks pointed out, iconic buildings aren't new. Before there was Bilbao, there was the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. But seekers of icons, beware: You can't simply announce you are going to create an icon, as Philadelphia boosters discovered with the Kimmel Center. Icons don't generally start out as beloved buildings. "You have to ask yourself, is it hated enough," said Jencks The only good iconic building may be an accidental one. His idea of the best "icon" in Philadelphia? The Clothespin.
Jencks was one of series of speakers brought in by PennDesign. Next up is architect David Adjaye (3/16) and MOMA's outgoing design curator, Terence Riley (3/30)