The Age of Spectacle by Tom Dyckhoff review – birth of the iconic landmark

Tom Dyckhoff looks at the impetus behind the modern era’s frantic desire to erect eye-catching buildings

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the City of London skyline, including the skyscrapers which have been nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin
The City of London skyline, including the skyscrapers which have been nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin / © Bloomberg

nd still they come. The Gherkins, Shards, Walkie-Talkies, Cheesegraters, Scalpels, giant iPhones, Bird’s Nest stadiums, flying tabletops, big pants. Like the conveyor belt of consumer items that older readers will remember in Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game, the supply of funny-looking buildings with funny names seems never-ending. Nicknames are converted into brands; satire and marketing merge. There has been an era of architectural invention like few others, combined with a sense of hollowness, the feeling of not knowing what it’s all for.

The “iconic” building is the most obvious architectural phenomenon of our age yet, somehow, no one has quite done what Tom Dyckhoff does with The Age of Spectacle, which is to tell its story clearly and plainly. Perhaps we all thought it would go away. Architects and critics have been pointing out the limitations of the concept since early in the century and the joke seemed to be wearing a bit thin even before the 2008 crash. But still they come.

As Dyckhoff points out, iconic architecture is a consequence of a globalised, market-led economy, wherein property developers more than municipalities are the main shapers of cities. Cities, and large-scale developments within them, have to compete for attention from investors and consumers, so – somewhat like the mating rituals of exotic birds – they have to display themselves with ever greater elaboration. Never mind that, if everyone is doing something extraordinary, it becomes ordinary: this drawback only feeds the hyperinflation of iconicity.

Dyckhoff couples this narrative with another, which is the rediscovery of historic city centres by the middle classes from about 1960 on, of their diversity and edginess, their markets and odd corners, until these places and their qualities acquire financial value, which changes them profoundly: gentrification, in a word. […]