icon (εἰκών)/vanity (καθομιλουμένη)

Icon‘ is one of the most overused terms in 21st century English.  Bands, buildings, comedians.  You name it, someone somewhere has labelled it iconic.

Of course, for anyone in the place-making business, ‘icons’ are themselves iconised by Gehry’s Bilbao Museum.  Everybody wants one – a magic building which will revive a flagging economy and get itself immortalised in architectural journals.  A legacy.  Icons are fantastic vanity projects.  (Not all vanity projects are buildings, but many if not all VPs cost someone a lot of money, as Rick makes clear here.)

Wikipedia (which we know is always right and succinct) says icon is also used, particularly in modern culture, in the general sense of symbol — i.e. a name, face, picture, edifice or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities: one thing, an image or depiction, that represents something else of greater significance through literal or figurative meaning, usually associated with religious, cultural, political, or economic standing. This sense of representation, of standing for the whole, descends from the original religious role of icons, and the easy application of the term to big things, arched buildings with their overtones of cathedrals, rather than the small, portable prayer- focus the Greek term means.

IMG_1671In place-making, I avoid the word icon like the plague.  All too often it means inappropriate, expensive buildings which create (at best) McJobs.  Witness my posts on the Cuidad des Artes y Sciences in Valencia over on our travel blog.  But I will make an exception for the glorious Sydney Opera House. Performances are scandalously expensive those days, but there are many real jobs onstage, backstage and front of house.  The building is loved and visited by millions of Australians as well as visitors, and must be one of the most instantly recognised sites in the world.

SOH was tens of millions of dollars over budget and more than ten years late in completion.  There were no engineers or accountants on the selection panels, something I would professionally deplore but i’m sure the building would not exist if the architects and artists had not been captured by Utzon’s vision.  Whatever the pain, lasting all through the ’60’s and beyond, today the Opera House is one of the few places that deserves the overworked iconic label.


About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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