Constructing great reputations: What makes a building iconic?

Eleven years ago, Emaar announced plans at Cityscape to build the world’s tallest building. Now, as the global property show in Dubai enters its 13th year, we question what makes a building truly iconic.

The Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi.
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When someone mentions New York, London, Paris or Sydney, like many people you’ll immediately associate the city with its famous structures – the Empire State Building, Tower Bridge, the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House.

Iconic buildings are a definition of a city; a statement about its history, ambition or how it wants to be seen. Often they have a story, such as the Sydney Opera House, whose architect, Jørn Utzon, abandoned the project amid a series of controversies, seven years before it was completed, and never returned to Australia.

Iconic buildings can affect the way that we feel about a city, often giving residents a monument to be proud of. But what is it that makes a building iconic? Does it need hundreds of years of history, such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to stir emotion? Is unique design more important, as in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao? Or is it enough to break world records, like the Burj Khalifa? Three UAE-based architects weigh into the discussion ahead of Cityscape Global in Dubai from September 21-23.

Bart Leclercq, the head of structures design for the Middle East at the architecture firm WSP, says a building can be iconic for many reasons. “If we look at a few of the truly iconic buildings in the world today, we realise that these actually have very few similarities. For instance, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State building or the Burj Al Arab. They are all so different – different in height, different in shape, different in function. What makes them iconic is probably their unique design, their symbolic value and their history – the impact they have had on the city where they were built,” he says.

Salim Hussain, the head of design at the chartered architects Brewer Smith Brewer Gulf, agrees that unique design is key as it “lifts the building above the crowd and becomes a metaphor for man’s aspirations; so, as well as a statement of design, it becomes a statement of intent”. He adds that accessibility is important – people are more likely to be drawn to public buildings. “You will find buildings that can be used by everyone are generally held in greater affection than those that are reserved for the privileged few. If a building is iconic on these various levels, it stands a better chance of becoming truly iconic.” So to plant itself in the hearts of the masses, it helps if a building stands out visually, has an intriguing background and is open to the public.

Richard Fenne, a senior associate at Woods Baggot Middle East, fears that the term “iconic” is in danger of being overused, as it becomes an increasingly common requirement from clients, particularly in emerging markets. He believes that “iconic” status is bestowed by the public and cannot necessarily be designed. An interesting story also helps. “Most buildings that are regarded as iconic tend to have a controversial history and it is the debate that surrounds them that raises their notable status,” he explains. “The Eiffel Tower was originally denounced as a ‘useless and monstrous’ structure, claiming that its ‘hateful shadow’ would overwhelm Paris’s finer monuments. George Orwell even called the Sagrada Família in Barcelona ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’.”

If having a controversial story is crucial to iconic status, does this mean that newer buildings face a greater struggle in gaining recognition? If the UAE is anything to go by, the answer is no. Hussain believes that new buildings have the upper hand, because technological advances mean that architects and engineers can now do the previously unthinkable. “New designs that were impossible only decades ago are being constructed. The sense of adventure and promise of a more exciting future are things that grab people’s attention,” he says, citing the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, as an example. “These represent new ideas in construction as well as a new vision, not only for themselves, but also their city.” But Fenne warns that modern architecture that contrasts sharply with its surroundings can attract its fair share of criticism. “30 St Mary Axe, affectionately known as ‘The Gherkin’, raised many eyebrows when it first appeared and was lambasted for denigrating the London skyline,” he says.

If there’s one country that champions the case for iconic new structures, it’s the UAE, where modern statement buildings are the norm – the more unusual and different, the better. The Burj Al Arab, which arguably launched Dubai onto the world stage with its “seven-star” luxury when it opened in 1999, has become an instantly recognisable symbol of the city. The sleek, sail-shaped building is now rivalled by the headline-grabbing Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building, which opened to much fanfare in 2010. Other buildings, such as Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi or Cayan Tower in Dubai Marina – previously known as Infinity Tower – draw attention because of their seemingly impossible design. Capital Gate holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s farthest leaning man-made tower at 18 degrees, while Cayan Tower attracts double-takes because of its twisted appearance.

Leclercq highlights the uniqueness of the UAE’s buildings in his list of the country’s most iconic structures. “The Burj Khalifa, because of its staggering height and slender elegance; the Burj Al Arab, because of its stunning shape and immaculate, serene white appearance against the blue sky and green-blue sea; [Cayan] Tower in Dubai Marina, because of its rotated sculptural appearance; Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi, because of its dramatic cantilevered organic shape; and Emirates Towers, with its similar mirrored presence.”

As well as the Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab, Hussain adds the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Emirates Golf Club to the list. “Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque [is] a stunning white building with intricate artwork internally and externally, coupled with the emotional tale of being linked with the life and passing of [the UAE’s] founding father, Sheikh Zayed,” he says. “The Emirates Golf Club is an older building, but a great example of contemporary architecture integrating the history and traditions of the region. Its role as the host of the [Dubai] Desert Classic [golf tournament] keeps it in the public eye and so it continually connects new generations with the rich history of the UAE.”

Taking the country’s history into consideration, Fenne suggests that Qasr Al Hosn is “probably the most iconic building in the UAE in the true sense of the word, although it may not be recognised as such given that it is currently undergoing restoration. It was once the most notable building in the emirate and the fabric of the fort really encapsulates the evolution of Abu Dhabi, from its origins as a watchtower to the residence of the ruling family, to a historic monument.” He also notes the World Trade Centre in Dubai and the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, not necessarily for their architectural form, but for their contributions to the development of the nation. But when it comes to widely recognised symbols of a city, few could go past the Burj Al Arab. “[It] is a building that helped put Dubai on the global radar with its reputation as the world’s only ‘seven-star’ hotel,” Fenne says. “This is a great example of architecture supported by a sensationalist and compelling marketing strategy that is synonymous with the city’s identity. In a similar vein, Abu Dhabi has Emirates Palace acting as its own global marketing machine for luxury.”

As Dubai prepares for Cityscape Global, which will be the biggest in five years and previously hosted the announcement of the Burj Khalifa, one has to question whether there’s room in the UAE for more iconic buildings. Apparently so, according to Hussain, Leclercq and Fenne, particularly with the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island and Dubai’s plans for Expo 2020.

“Existing icons – old and new – have placed the UAE on the world stage as an innovator. Planned projects such as the museums on Saadiyat Island and Expo 2020 will continue to keep the UAE on the world stage and propel it even further,” Hussain enthuses.

Fenne, meanwhile, expects that the development of internationally renowned museums, such as the Louvre and Guggenheim, on Saadiyat Island will promote cultural tourism and have a “Bilbao effect” on visitor numbers. “Dubai will look towards the Expo 2020, where the new-built environment surrounding this event will further the social and cultural legacy of the city, as seen in other examples, like the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and the Expos in Lisbon in 1998 and Glasgow in 1990,” he elaborates.

While the UAE waits to see whether the announcements at this year’s Cityscape Global can rival those of 2008’s property boom, its residents can reflect on the country’s standing in the realms of the world’s great pieces of architecture.

“There is no doubt in my mind that iconic architecture changes the way a city or even a country is viewed on the world stage,” Leclercq says. “Iconic buildings stir the blood and make people curious. They tell us something about the people and the society that made the building possible – and, as an inquisitive human being, you want to find out what that story is. The UAE is now one of the great tourist destinations and its iconic buildings have played a major role in this.”