Programme + Construction
Modes of representation
Considering iconography in architecture there are more modes of representation than the ‘Duck’ and ‘Decorated Shed’ that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown propose in their book ‘Learning from Las Vegas.’ The difference between those two models is basically the difference between representation through a surface or representation through an object. That distinction is also made on Eikongraphia, with the extra notion that ‘color’ is technically a third parameter to make form. Venturi Scott Brown have simply forgotten about that.
Let’s start with the objects. The mode of representation of the Duck-model is twofold: an explicit shape triggers the association of the public towards the image of the duck, a relation to the program - in this case a (duck)restaurant – narrows its meaning further. This reciprocity between sign and content at the Duck-model is important to acknowledge, because as one can see in this overview more than one third of the projects at Eikongraphia lack this reciprocity. All projects under ‘Shape’ apply an (unintended) iconography that has no relation whatsoever with the program or construction of the building.
In his article ‘The Hokusai Wave’ Alejandro Zaero-Polo from Foreign Office Architects suggests a second mode of representation that is in his view more intelligent than the Duck-model. Alejandro Zaero-Polo suggests form with a ‘Double Agenda’ – the iconography of the building is not only reciprocal with the program (and organization), but also with the construction of the building. His argument addresses basically the ‘tightness’ of the iconographic form, to put it in Hip Hop slang.
I remember an analysis that Greg Lynn once wrote of the (blob!) Statue of Liberty. A building, he argued, is always constructed as 3 x 3 squares. In total 9 squares, that make one big square. But at the Statue of Liberty all 8 ‘squares’ at the periphery have one deformed side because of the irregular skin of the statue. Only the central square of the nine keeps its regular form, and that is where the construction is put at that project. That is how we have to do blob-architecture, Greg Lynn concluded: a square construction and an irregular skin wrapped loosely around it. It is this way that Frank Gehry often realizes his projects.
Alejandro Zaero-Polo interprets the space in between the construction of the Statue of Liberty and its skin as a ‘dishonest’ and unintelligent way of making architecture. So he proposes to try to integrate the construction with the skin, the iconographic form. His Yokohama International Cruise Terminal illustrates his argument; shape, program, and construction are one coherent, tight, object.
At this page I unfolded these three parameters of representation – shape, program, construction – and related them in all possible ways. The resulting seven categories are very differently populated. Making just ‘shape’ seems to be the easiest thing to do, and is a highly successful with projects like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the ING House in Amsterdam. Secondly popular is the Duck-model – the program is the most popular motivation for a tighter iconography. Another popular argument to make form is the construction of the building.
The ‘double agenda’ mode of representation does not score all that bad with six examples. Considering the complexity of building iconographic architecture this way I would say it is a lot.
When editing this page I came across one problem: what about the context? Especially a lot of projects under the ‘Shape’ section derive their iconography from their context. For instance in the vicinity of water some buildings put up sails or echo the form of the waves of the building. The ‘double agenda’ or ‘duck-model’ both ignore this question.
To conclude it is important to notice that the projects under the ‘double agenda’ category are not the most successful/well-known examples of iconographic architecture. Projects with a less ‘tight’ form down the list are much more successful. I already mentioned the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but also think of for instance the Swiss Re building whose form has absolutely no connection to its program.
It is therefore not useful to argue that one mode of representation is better than the other. The ‘double agenda’ mode is fascinatingly sophisticated and deeply meaningful, and I am convinced that we will see this mode much more in the future. But the integration of the construction in the iconographic form is in practice very costly and not always sufficiently meaningful. An obvious danger is that the iconographic form of the building is compromised in a design, because the integrated construction might otherwise not hold the building together. In that case I would rather prefer a less tight Frank Gehry.