The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization, by Leslie Sklair

James Stevens Curl on a study of symptoms of consumer culture and those who built them

November 16, 2017
Globalised city
Source: iStock

Those over-used clichés, “icon” and “iconic”, grate as much as did “fantastic” a short time ago. Often, so-called iconic architecture by globe-trotting “starchitects” is realised after initial cost underestimation and later overrun, neither of which can be explained by error, but, once started, those paying go along with it.

“Iconic” structures seem to be intrinsic elements in a planet-wide project to treat the world as a development opportunity for transnational capitalism. They are unpleasant symptoms of consumer culture, corporate entertainment and social control, yet their eye-watering costs, energy-profligate unsustainability and irrelevance to the problems and realities of modern living point to a massive failure of critical faculties: they are treated rather like fashionable accessories, lifestyle bling or over-complicated menus for food faddies. For the most part, anti-urban, ill-mannered and threatening, “iconic” buildings are merely bullying intruders, flatulent monuments to greed, cupidity and foolishness. “Values” of global capitalism have created a delusion that human worth and happiness are achieved through conspicuous consumption and acquisition of unaffordable possessions.

Any consideration of “iconic” architecture must include a cold look at the “starchitect” as in effect an idol, but idolatry, as theology tells us, is the Great Sin through which humankind is lost. Adulation of obscenely expensive “iconic” buildings that look deliberately unstable is yet another ugly facet of the violence, cruelty and inhumanity of neo-liberalism, the ideology of which seems to be intent on widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots to an unbridgeable, unimaginable size, and imposing austerity on anybody who is an easy target. Most people are not concerned with “icons”: they experience a built environment, much of which is bog-standard, in terms of aesthetics, function and quality. Between the aspirations of egocentric “stars” and those of the mass of humanity is a void empty of emotion, empathy and basic compassion. The long-term needs of the people seem to be sold to investors, no matter where the money for such purchases originates, so it is difficult to regard architects who serve such investors as “stars”, but rather as amoral opportunists thriving in an atmosphere of deeply rooted ethical decay. This book, therefore, touches on an issue of great importance in all our lives.

Sklair identifies the hubristic “iconic project” of contemporary global capitalism as promoting increasing inequality and hyperconsumerism, a weapon confirming capitalist hegemony, controlling where we live, what we consume and even what we think. His purpose is to “encourage those who believe that all is not well with the life of capitalist globalization” to reject “consumerist/oppressive” cities in favour of “functional/emancipatory” ones, but his optimistic belief that “architects and urban designers will surely work to enhance our built environment” is unfounded, given the unholy mess those ill-educated incompetents made of countless towns and cities since Modernism was universally embraced after 1945, and his sociological/Marx-inspired approaches are unlikely to make much of a dent in what is shaping up to be a global calamity. Nemesis, however, will assuredly come after Hubris, possibly through widespread social disorder.

Sklair’s vertically distorted photographs should have been rejected, while others, undistorted, lean heavily to one side, giving an amateurish appearance to a book that deserves to be taken seriously. The index could have been improved.

James Stevens Curl’s new book on the rise and survival of architectural barbarism will be published in 2018.


The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization
By Leslie Sklair
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £26.49
ISBN 9780190464189
Published 20 April 2017

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