What’s wrong with iconic architecture

Described as “iconic, ambitious and sustainable,” the V&A in Dundee by Japanese architects Kengo Kuma & Associates will open September 2018.

As I’ve been studying semiotics of late, in particular C.S. Peirce’s concepts of the icon, index and symbol, I can’t resist a brief reflection on the concept of the icon in architecture. See my last post Invisible icons.

Iconic buildings

I think most people understand the idea of iconic architecture. As I wrote last time, an iconic object is usually a prime example of an artefact or person that is “considered worthy of admiration or respect” according to the OED.

C.S. Peirce had something else in mind though. An icon is simply a kind of sign that looks like the thing it is referring to. A painting of a building is an icon in that it bears a visual similarity to the building it references.

It is more difficult to classify a building according to this definition of an icon, as a building signifies so much. A building (e.g. the V&A) shaped like a series of geological strata might serve as an icon in that it evokes, through resemblance, a series of fragmented cliff faces. It does that, but much more as well.

Iconic design

The design theorist Geoffrey Broadbent had developed the idea of iconic design, which is merely copying, by resemblance, a past design. The V&A might be the product of that kind of iconic design if it was designed to resemble other work by the same or a different architect. It does bear some similarities to the interior of a Kengo Kuma building in Taipei.

Broadbent highlighted some difficulties with the idea of iconic architecture, and the difficulty he had relating his own concept of the icon with that of Peirce. Broadbent thought that  C.S. Peirce’s sign categories of icon, index and symbol lie along a spectrum, from resemblance (icon) at one end to the convention-bound nature of the symbol at the other. The indexical sign is between these two.

Broadbent also positioned the icon and the symbol at extreme ends of a spectrum of lesser to greater perceptual sophistication. An icon accords with direct physiological response, as a child delights in how one thing resembles another. The symbol, at the other end of the sign spectrum, requires a much more sophisticated “culturally sanctioned response” (319). In either case, icons don’t come off all that well.

Typologic design

Broadbent circumvented the problem he had with icons and relabelled his original iconic design category “typologic design,” to avoid confusion with Peirce’s iconic sign category.

“It seems therefore that my analogic and canonic design types represent different aspects of iconicity whilst my iconic design has little or nothing to do with Peirce’s original concept. That is why I now call it Typologic, thus bringing it into that long tradition of design by typology” (326).

A typological design therefore belongs in the category of symbolic design, following a system, convention, rule or schema. Broadbent traces such typological design to Abbé Laugier and Quatremère de Quincy.

The main problem with iconic architecture is that it doesn’t always work as a descriptor. I’m inclined to say that what a building means, ie. what it references, is a matter of interpretation. Interpretations depend on the social, cultural, technical and other contexts in which the description (iconic, indexical, symbolic or other) is being applied — and, like all art, is subject to constant re-interpretation. See posts tagged: hermeneutics.


  • Broadbent, Geoffrey. 1980. Building design as an iconic sign system. In Geoffrey Broadbent, Richard Bunt, and Charles Jencks (eds.), Signs, Symbols, and Architecture: 311-331. Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Jencks, Charles. 2005. Iconic Building. New York: Rizzoli

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