Icon Envy

A recent survey commissioned by UK Building/Architecture website InBuilding.org was recently profiled in The Architects Journal under the headline, ‘It’s true: people don’t know what architects do.’

People visiting The Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Shard in London are given a bit of a clue as to what architects do.

Having recently returned from a visit to Sydney, I tripped over at least two real eye poppers.

One being American Frank Gehry’s first building in the southern hemisphere, the new UTS Business School.  It is a pretty amazing building that recognises brick can be laid in other than straight and perpendicular lines.

Under construction - the UTS Business School

Under construction – the UTS Business School.

Apparently a 75 -year-old bricklayer had to be taken out of retirement to deal with this new liberation of the brick.

The other standout new building is dripping with foliage, a high rise residential/retail complex designed by Parisian Jean Nouvel (in association with French artist and botanist Patrick Blanc.)

John Nouvel, retail / residential, One Central Park.

Jean Nouvel, retail / residential, One Central Park.

Other recent buildings of interest include two Lord Foster’s and a Sir Richard Rogers, all towering proudly and perkily in the CBD.

Foster  Associates, offices/residential, Regent Place

Foster Associates, offices/residential, Regent Place

Rogers, Stirk Partners (in collaboration with Lippman Partnership,  8 Chifley Sq offices

Rogers, Stirk Partners (in collaboration with Lippman Partnership) 8 Chifley Sq offices

Australian architects are now experiencing international reciprocity, with Melbourne based Denton Corker Marshall, for example, producing icons at the Manchester Law Courts and the Stonehenge Visitor Centre.

Our country has a similar population to that of Sydney and yet for some reason, we have the same number of iconic buildings as a manx cat’s tail.

Given a situation of opportunity, is it arrogance or insecurity that has driven us toward mediocrity of design and fear of the iconic?

We sort of had the beginnings long ago; an icon in Wellington, now known as the Beehive.  Urban legend tells us it began as a table napkin scribble by Basil Spence at a boozy lunch with Keith Holyoake.

To be fair though Kiwi Keith did show early respect for the prospect of creating an icon building.

In later years in our next opportunity, Te Papa, the judging committee didn’t consider Frank Gehry & Ian Athfield’s (our resident genius) submission, worthy enough for consideration.

What a lost opportunity history will record that was. Te Papa could have sat between Bilbao and the Disney Concert Hall, meaning architectural groupies would swell the numbers of dutiful tourists.

The grubby clump now despoiling our foreshore is as comparable to Sydney’s Opera House as a camel is to a thoroughbred horse.

The Sydney Opera House has recently been granted world heritage status.

Most world heritage sites have been created by nature rather than by architects.

New Zealand has recently exhibited its architecture on the world stage for the first time, in the globally significant Venice Biennale. The world is shrinking and so perhaps is our overprotective parochialism.

We may even be poised to allow architectural superstars to perform in our midst.

I for one would welcome this happening. I have known ever since childhood in that icon bereft city of Hamilton, that people never knew what architects did.

If we get a Zaha, a Frank or any other global architect who pokes above the parapet, to build in our midst, people will really begin to understand what architects can indeed do.

Our residential architecture is world class, and has been very well received at the Venice Biennale.

The controversy and debate that arises from global genius architects, serves us well.

As well as raising public interest in our profession, iconic buildings often liberate the minds of our conservative clients.