W, by BIG

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright 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.

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

BIG - Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)
BIG – Walter Towers, Prague (Copyright BIG)

Related on Eikongraphia: Ren, by Plot; Poem, by Waterstudio; T’s, by Holl; Y, by NL;

7 Comments

small correction: CZ stands for Czech Republic; since Czechoslovakia does not exist any more.

And in general thank you for your writings, I really enjoy reading.

Thanks Jakob! I directly corrected it. I don’t know why I wrote that… I am of course very much aware that Czechoslovakia isn’t anymore.

In Holland we call the country ‘Tjechië’. I believe we should change that to ‘Tjechische Republiek’.

The project is actually called ‘Walter Towers’, so maybe the ‘W’ is still representing clear iconography…

Comparing it to BIG’s project in Vejle (http://www.big.dk/projects/vej/vej.html), it’s probably less obvious. Still, I think I like the Vejle project more because it actually is what is, a logo.

To me, this project looks like they have tried to find plausible reasons during their design proces to justify the initial shape.

Or perhaps it was an intentional “F U” to any attempt to read it iconographically. Perhaps, it was thus a ideological stance or maybe even something about theoretical given that Bjarne, seems very much a anti-context or at least all site program/planning in his approach to Form.

BIG’s concepts are always reducing architecture to nothing (that’s my opinion of course, someone can disagree). There’s no critical statement or position. The concepts seem just appealing figures arbitrarily taken from a box. I see it as a sort of childish architecture, or maybe I just do not understand them…

Marco, I can see your point and I would like to offer my take on it. I borrow the description from Craig Dykers from snohetta when he said that no one ever walk into a building and drop to their knees and say “wow! what a great concept.” In the end a building is mostly engaged as an experience of the built thing.

I think that these guys (BIG) gets this point and pushes it hard. They threw all the conceptual & theoritical jargon out the back door and focus on the building as a product branding and all.

see this post

http://famousarchitect.blogspot.com/2008/01/35-bio-like-big.html

1) in response to enigmatic signifiers, czech does not use the ‘w’ as a letter. which may explain the form put into prague. however, in my opinion the form is not random enough for prague. W is too rational and autonomous. if they want a disturbing randomness, the ‘iconography’ shouldn’t even be recognizable at all.
in prague especially, the ‘enigmatic signifiers’ are mostly non-visual. more concerning the conflicted movement and gothic-irrationality, rather than the visual signs. the city is not readable (more scrambled than coded).
if the ‘w’ aims to be illegible in prague, i do not think it will work, because it is not obscuring anything else.
illegibility and obscurity are great ambitions for contemporary architecture in prague, and towers are a challenge. however, this project- while conceptually coherent and formally compelling- i think does not quite achieve it…
the problem with ‘iconography’ is it can not be meaningless unless it is used in tandem with meaning to create obscurity…
2) the city is a horizontal one, with many views upon itself, and the building of new towers a big conflict. therefore, the meaning of towers, even ‘random’ ones will be placed within the larger context and city image. (there is no image of the W in the landscape). prague is exceptional for its cohesion. but it already has ruptures, and towers could be used to blur or accent existing elements of the urban structure.
i think W is a metaphor for the provocative tower in prague, but it is itself not successful. the provocative tower will be one that is continuous but is not intact. it will weave in and out of the landscape, but it will be an agent of obscurity, not one of nomination.

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