Can a Building be Too Iconic?

Our editor-at-large considers the notion

03/14/2016 By Robert Nieminen

In a February 26th post, John Brownlee of Fast Company highlighted a problem that the iconic Sydney Opera House is not only facing but attempting to tackle: it’s too famous. The author notes that while more than 8 million people pose for pictures in front of its prominent “sails,” less than 350,000 of them actually step inside the world famous structure for a guided tour or take in an event.

“That’s a shame because ... the content of the Sydney Opera House was meant to be seen as one with its exterior; you were supposed to want to go in as much as you wanted to walk around it,” Brownlee notes.

He’s right. How many photos of the Leaning Tower of Pisa have you seen from the inside? It seems most visitors don’t bother ascending its more than 300 uniquely uneven steps. They are more than content to stage the clichéd snapshot of themselves holding up the leaning structure instead.

In the present era of starchitecture, it’s as if the façade has become such a marvel that the public nearly forgets there are meaningful functions designed to take place within them. Frank Gehry’s perplexing Experience Music Project comes to mind, as does Gaudi’s spectacular La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, a staggering project that has taken more than 132 years to construct and counting.

Although it hasn’t yet become overrun by tourists armed with selfie sticks (to our knowledge anyway), it seems one could easily become prone to stand gaping at the exterior of Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre for long stretches of time admiring its curves, forgetting that there are exhibitions within worth seeing.

Don’t misunderstand: these structural icons are modern marvels worthy of the notoriety they’ve achieved. The brilliance of these architects who have pushed the envelope beyond the edges of our neatly ordered imaginations isn’t at issue. The question is, can these soaring forms ever come back down to earth to serve the functions they were intended to encase? Or as Brownlee puts it: “How do you refocus attention when the building is viewed as more important than the cultural institution it was designed to promote?”

Sydney’s Opera House is attempting to answer these questions with a rebranding campaign. Could other world famous buildings do the same? Should they?

Sound off in the comments below. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

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