Saturday, March 18, 2017

Leslie Sklair's "The Icon Project"

Leslie Sklair is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the London School of Economics. He worked in a cotton mill outside Glasgow for two years before going to university to study sociology and philosophy. Both experiences fostered a life-long interest in how capitalist society works in different ways for different groups of people. In particular his long-standing interest in architecture and cities sharpened his vision on the power of the built environment to shape our lives.

Sklair applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization, and reported the following:
From page 99:
cluster around it since its opening in 2004. It has featured in many media outlets, attracting attention from political leaders as well as design communities from California to China. A stamp was issued in France to celebrate its opening. The bridge was designed by French engineer Michel Virlogeux and Norman Foster (who got most of the Anglophone credit) and won an IABSE Outstanding Structure Award in 2006. Virlogeux, along with two French architects, also designed Pont de Normandie over the Seine outside Le Havre, the longest cable- stayed bridge in the world when it opened in 1995. While the other bridges discussed earlier have experienced a relatively low level of commodification, Pont de Normandie is an excellent example of celebrity infrastructure at a high level of commodification and corporatization, at the local and regional scale. This is not simply a bridge; it has some of the elements of a small theme park, with a video introduction, guided tours, souvenirs, murals and models of the construction of the project, interactive computer graphics, ‘diaporamas’, restaurant, and an ‘engineers garden’. The informative brochure which greets visitors is issued by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Le Havre, a public institution of the French state servicing the industrial, trade, and service providers of its territory. The website of Pont de Normandie links directly with CCI Le Havre, and it is soon obvious that the bridge is an integral part of the tourist and business strategy of the region, fulfilling my criteria of celebrity infrastructure. The bridge is commodified to the extent that vehicles pay to use it (though pedestrians and bikes go free); corporatized to the extent that it was partly financed by corporate investment (sometime part- owned by the Australian Macquarie Group); decidedly run like a profit- oriented business; amplified through consumerism in realms that bridges do not obviously provide; and is clearly being turned into a local/ regional icon (figure 3.8).

While not all bridges are as celebrated as the Millau Viaduct or as commercially developed as Pont de Normandie, many are certainly exploited commercially at various scales. For example, the ├śresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden (2000) has had a TV crime drama (The Bridge) based around it, and it is used in marketing in Scandinavia. It has also received the ultimate accolade in that part of the world: its image was employed to symbolize the connection between Sweden and the rest of Europe in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013, thereby reaching an audience of many millions. It also won an IABSE Outstanding Structure Award in 2002 and was mobilized in the campaign against independence for Scotland as a curious exemplar of the benefits of international connections.
I was intrigued to find that page 99 did touch on several of the central themes of the book - iconic architecture, here in the form of celebrity infrastructure as in bridges; the commodification of everything, turning bridges into little theme parts; the connection with what I call 'the culture-ideology of consumerism'; and the and overlaps between architecture/engineering and the corporate, political, technical, and consumerist (including the mass media and advertising) sectors.

The rest of the book adds to this analysis (iconic buildings and structures are defined in terms of acknowledged aesthetic/symbolic significance and famous at the global, national or the urban/local level. I distinguish between the unique iconic architecture of the starchitects and signature architects (genuine works of art) and what I label the typical architectural icons (those buildings that copy elements of unique icons) that we can see in cities all over the world. The book has a global scope, with case studies of iconic architecture and urban megaprojects from the prosperous West and the Arabian Gulf to the so-called developing East and South (notably China). There are few cities anywhere in the world which do not now have unique iconic buildings and/or typical iconic buildings and, as I argue throughout the book, these phenomena cannot be properly understood without reference to the global culture-ideology of consumerism and the incessant growth imperative of capitalist globalization.

The concluding chapter argues that many architects today are not entirely happy with the consumerist-corporate agenda that appears to drive architecture all over the world and that they would be ready to provide a more sustainable built environment to meet the needs of alternative globalizations.
Learn more about The Icon Project at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue