W, by BIG
Word, Wu-Tang, Wicked, Welcome, Writing, Wacko, Westside, Whoops, George W., Wailing, Work, Wit, Web, Wonder, Wall, Willie, World, Window, Walter Towers…
The ‘W’ that BIG, Bjarne Ingels Group, has designed for the city of Prague doesn’t represent anything. It’s just a ‘W’. Nothing more. A random letter from the Latin alphabet. It has no assigned virtue, the iconography of the building. The ‘W’ could refer to the name of the project, ‘Walter Towers’, but just like that it couldn’t. In his statement the architect doesn’t reveal anything. No word, not even a letter.
The randomness of the chosen iconography is disturbing. Other buildings designed in the form of a letter are very clear about their meaning. The ‘Y’ tower that NL Architects designed back in the nineties was located next to the ‘IJ’ lake in Amsterdam. The ‘BE’ apartment buildings that JDS recently drew up for Brussels are equally outspoken. The ‘HvH’ towers that MVRDV once proposed in a competition were meant to put the village of ‘Hoek van Holland’ on the map. Why did BIG not propose a huge ‘P’ for Prague? Or a ‘CZ’ for Czech Republic?
In that case the design wouldn’t be this sophisticated, that’s for sure. By keeping the origin of the letter vague, the building starts to work like an enigmatic signifier, as Charles Jencks described in his book ‘ The Iconic Building’. Enigmatic signifiers allow the public to project their own references on a building. The concept is that the building has such a form that no reference will stick and that the public is able to everyday see something else in the same building. Like watching clouds. Charles Jencks believes that when iconography becomes fluid, it becomes meaningless. In that sense the concept is a way to escape iconography. In the end a building is just a building. It is what it is.
The case of the ‘W’ building designed by BIG is however more complicated. We might not know the word the ‘W’ refers to, but we do know it’s a ‘W’. That is something. This building is a ‘W’. There are few letters in the alphabet as cool as a ‘W’. It is not at all like soft ‘J’ or a hard ‘K’. A ‘W’ is far more relaxed. Double-U. Its symmetrical figure is thorough and strong. It is nothing, but something.
I am tempted to read the building as a critical statement to the commercial city, similarly to how Michael Hays read Mies van der Rohe’s design for a glass skyscraper in Berlin as a critique to the vulgar urban situation back then. In the case of Prague, BIG has designed the biggest logo in town. A logo without content. It will dwarf the Coca-Cola logo’s. It will dwarf every commercial logo in the area. It is the biggest logo in Europe, and it is non-commercial.
If we would allow ourselves a little speculation. What if architects all over the world would start designing buildings in the form of logo’s for non-existent labels? Would companies start buying the copyright of the architect and start new product lines that would feature the logo? Has BIG already received some business proposals? A new line of sneakers? A new ‘W’ater?
As I think about this, I realize that the Herzog & de Meuron’s ‘Bird’s nest’ in Beijing as a logo featured on all kinds of products. In the Netherlands copyright law obliges the manufacturer of these products to pay a fee to the copyright-holder, i.e. the architect. Only when the commissioner of the building makes a different agreement with the architect this doesn’t go up. In the Netherlands UNStudio has won lawsuits over this. I suspect Herzog & de Meuron have let it pass. If they would have wanted though, they probably could have got some money out of it.
Back to the ‘W’. Like more projects of BIG the reasoning behind the ‘W’ form is a technical one. A cut on ground level allows pedestrians to cross the site. Two cuts in the top of this virtual slab allows for air and views. This is especially relevant as the top floors are reserved for apartments. Only the first four floors have a commercial program. The engineers of Adams Cara Tayler suggest a Vierendeel construction for the project. With 27 floors the ‘W’ reaches a height of 80 meters.