Must we pursue Iconism?
If we were to believe Jencks, Generic Individualism is today’s International Style. Is that what we want to do? Produce trophy buildings and icon wannabes?
March 22, 2018
Written by Leandro Poco
Photographed by Patrick Kasingsing
A lot of architects want desperately to be iconic. But as architecture critic Charles Jencks argued in his talk at the World Architecture Festival, most—particularly architects of big buildings—miss the mark. They produce instead structures with a condition Jencks calls Generic Individualism. It is not as dreaded a disease as Monothematitis, a malady of singular themes and repetitive elements. But Generic Individualism is not the ideal, and has become pandemic.
In the context of the Philippines as a design and real estate market, the ideas Jencks discusses fly over our heads. However, they are worth mulling over because we are in the Age of the Iconic Building, and if one were to believe Jencks, Generic Individualism is today’s International Style, the Beaux Arts of our time. Is that what we want to do? Produce trophy buildings and icon wannabes?
How did we get here?
Generic Individualism is a product of the long march of human socioeconomic development toward today’s mass customization, a concept that is just as oxymoronic. Mass customization is individualization of products made possible on a mass scale without significant increases in cost because of technologies such as software modeling; and greatly increased efficiencies of production.
Mass customization enables architects and engineers to design and produce individually sized and fitted members, cladding elements, sunscreens, patterns, and textures that ultimately add depth, character, and uniqueness to buildings. Mass customization also allows designers to explore forms previously considered un-buildable, because the computational technology is now available to create virtual models loaded with real-world information—Hadid and Schumacher’s Parametricism is a manifestation of this.
But apart from technology, what conditions fertilized the ground for this blossoming of form, and the anger that accompanies the spawn of Iconism and Generic Individualism? Jencks draws out two conditions, which intersect:
First is the Faustian bargain made in wealthy and newly wealthy states like Singapore, Qatar, UAE and China, where citizens surrender certain freedoms in exchange for the promise of efficiency and comfortable lives. Singapore’s ruling party has maintained its hold on the city-state because it has committed to improve the lives of its people in exchange for continued rule.
After housing most of its citizens in a very successful and continuing public housing program, it has moved up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to self-actualization on the scale of the State. Its drive for identity has fueled Singapore’s multitude of iconic projects, which are, as Jencks describes, flavors and variants of each other, and of similar projects abroad. As seen in other states, the centralization of prerogative allows state actors to accord value to big iconic projects as objects of status and prestige, and therefore, of national priority.
Iconism in the Philippines
Locally, we had a taste of this during the Marcos period, producing our modern national icons—the CCP Main Theater and the PICC, which stood as Imelda’s objects of International Admiration and Self Actualization for the erstwhile Bagong Lipunan. We were building these while Singapore was housing its population, Malaysia was developing its oil resources, and Thailand was learning to plant better breeds of rice (with the help of Filipino scientists at IRRI, in Los Baños).
The Imeldific forays into Iconism were the very first steps of a child who stumbled, fell and is learning how to stand up again.
The irony is that despite our derision of the dictator’s dark regime, we still hold important events in these icons. We have not overwritten their place in our national consciousness. Their use and beauty have survived the collapse of the regime that built them, and have weathered the subsequent decay of our social contract with our leaders. Nowadays nothing seems to get built, because no one trusts the government to do so without stealing from the national treasury.
Money begets bigness and iconism
The second condition giving rise to Iconism and Generic Individualism is the subsequent concentration of money. As nations develop and capital markets take hold, the natural tendency of capital is to agglomerate within corporate powerhouses. It makes sense. As success breeds success, more capital allows business to invest, erect barriers to entry, and eventually adopt rent-seeking behaviors at the behest of the governments that kowtow to the corporate war chests.
Jencks calls this Monopoly Capitalism, and it goes hand-in-hand with the Faustian bargain people make with their governments. At best, these conditions may give rise to Socialized Capitalism, or “socitalism,” as Jencks calls it, as embodied in Singapore’s welfare and housing programs. At worst, the situation produces monopoly corporations delivering social services, a role abandoned by government.
Sometimes, the Faustian bargain does not involve the state and its people, but the state and monopoly capitalists. This produces problems as in the UK, its authorities unable to prevent questionable Russian oligarchical oil money and Arab petrodollars from being invested into gentrified London, with its mushrooming iconic skyscrapers. The same bargain is also driving the prime real estate boom in similar iconic luxury condominium markets of Canada and Australia, fueled by capital flight from China.
The concentration of power and money enables governments and businesses to marshal resources to build big and build what was previously unbuildable. The investments made for projects effectively mobilize new technologies to produce and build efficiently to that scale and detail.
Surrender of the public realm
Locally, our collective distrust of our government’s prerogative, discretion, and ability to manage anything has surrendered larger and larger chunks of our public realm to the private sector, the recent wave seen in public-private partnerships.
Where before, government assets were privatized to be run more smoothly, nowadays, government enters into monopolistic bargains with corporate interests to bankroll much-needed infrastructure development. At the baseline, one hopes this method of development will produce the railways and farm-to-market roads needed to connect our country, amongst the many essential, non-iconic and unsexy infrastructure our country requires.
But public-private partnerships have also begun to germinate modern iconic infrastructure as well, such as airports and bridges. Even without involvement from the state, strategically located businesses have cultivated almost monopoly-like abilities by funneling capital inflows from new or growing markets, like the growing consumption economy driven by OFW remittances and the BPO industry.
The BPO industry for one has given rise to countless high-grade office buildings, all claiming to be the premier, iconic address of business and investment. This in turn has created the impetus to retire Modernist icons such as The Mandarin and the Intercon, to build on our last remaining iconic open spaces, and defile our own national monuments to bring in the next generation of self-decreed iconic hotels and condominiums.
Iconism’s effect on architects
The increasing demand for big, iconic buildings has figured in the evolution of the architect, from the nurturing and caring designer represented in Greco-Roman art and literature as a female figure to the present-day masculine exponent of the owner/developer’s ego. Architectural, engineering, management and construction firms have themselves evolved from small, familial outfits into the multinational, multi-office, multi-talented, all-in companies that partner with the large corporate and state interests that develop these big icons.
The heroic vision of the lone creator has been sidelined not by lack of ability, but by lack of resources to design, produce and roll out work at the scale and speed required by big projects. Zaha, Bjarke, Gehry are now mere figureheads in their respective large, rolling machineries of design and production.
We see this change locally, as big design firms grow larger still, and dominate over small firms as clients look to build big, at speed. The challenge is that of organizational and talent development. To do big work efficiently, big firms must nurture talent and push the frontiers of creativity, while cultivating their own all-in design houses, competitive on the world stage.
The question remains whether young architects will get their chance to grow as the big boys get bigger and eat their lunch. Locally, the prestige of design authorship is the domain of the name partners and “rainmakers” who bring the clients in. How will they fare in international open markets where one’s local connections hold no water without the necessary design chops?
Must we pursue Iconism?
The Imeldific forays into Iconism were the very first steps of a child who stumbled, fell and is learning how to stand up again. Today, the top end of our country’s real estate markets are endeavoring to create “self-actualizing” statements, but these, I feel, are premature.
The vast majority of buildings and infrastructure are exercises in value engineering, of squared mass production and of Six-Sigma-like elimination of variations. They are a far cry from the mass customization that Jencks talks about, which it must be pointed out, falls short of genuine individuation and personalization.
For every iconic building architects dream of doing, there are a hundred fabric or background buildings and infrastructure that need to be designed well, built well, and built fast. Unfortunately, fabric is not the stuff dreams are made off.
Iconism, while helpful for stimulating a sense of pride and identity, needs to be put back in the oven to bake until our dough (masa) rises.
If we were to follow Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as exemplified by Singapore’s development, we have not yet earned the right to talk about building icons. It is vanity to do so when the majority of our nation still needs to be humanely sheltered, fed and nurtured. But there is hope. All the great work we see abroad are products of a long process of growth, for which, local and foreign economists say, the Philippines’ time has finally come (again).
I hope that by 2050, people will look back at how Filipinos of our generation housed our poor and empowered our citizens, providing the deep foundations for the self-actualization and icons of that age.