An image opens on my screen: a 2,000-seat theatre on the edge lands of Guangzhou, a territory of raw new towers and just-departed rural ghosts, designed to look like a swirl of red silk, imprinted with “tattoos” of phoenixes, cranes and other ornithology. It refers, goes the explanatory text, to Guangzhou’s historic role as “the birthplace of the silk road on the sea”. It is a declaration of something where there was formerly nothing, a three-dimensional advertisement for the colossal Sunac Wanda cultural tourism city of which it is part. I peer at the image – is it virtual or real? It’s real.
It enters a mental folder already bulging with such projects as a football stadium – reportedly the largest in the world – under construction in the same city in the shape of a giant lotus flower. Also the completed Zendai Himalayas centre in Nanjing, a 560,000 sq metre mixed-use development shaped like a mountain range, which is said to adapt “the traditional Chinese shanshui ethos of spiritual harmony between nature and humanity to the modern urban environment”. Other prodigies demand attention: a pair of super-tall skyscrapers in Shenzhen whose conjoined nether regions melt into tree-filled terraces and undulant glass, a quartet of twisting aluminium-clad towers in Qatar and apartment towers in Vancouver propped like tulip heads on narrow stalks.
Certain characteristics are shared, such as eye-popping imagery and curving architectural forms that stand out by virtue of being the last shapes you would come up with if you were only concerned with the practicalities of manufacture, assembly and engineering. There is the unsubtle wielding of natural and cultural symbolism – lotus flowers, the Himalayas, silk, shanshui. There is a passion for putting trees in the air, with a correlative unconcern about whether a storeys-high planter offers a comparable experience of nature to a park on the ground. Look and shape are everything.
They push boundaries, sometimes of technical possibilities, more often of what was formerly considered tasteful or proper. They do what they do because they can. There’s an old term for projects like this, iconic architecture, which has been around for at least two decades. There was also the ohmigoddery of early-century Dubai, with its palm islands and sail-shaped, seven-star hotel and tallest building in the world, which in some ways has not been surpassed. What is striking is the way it keeps on coming, in such volume and at such scale, in so many parts of the world. Iconic architecture has been declared passé and boring for almost as long as the concept has existed, but it won’t go away. Abnormal is the new, or not-so-new, normal.
The underlying factors are partly those that have always driven attention-seeking architecture, the desire of businesses and municipalities to advertise and sell themselves, the urge to make a mark, to glorify, to self-aggrandise. They are magnified by such things as (in the Arabian Gulf) the vast quantities of money available and (in China) the colossal scale at which urban developments are rolled out – the not-small Sunac Guangzhou Grand theatre turns out to be a maraschino cherry in the vast cocktail jug of theme parks, indoor ski slopes, water rides and the like that is the Sunac Wanda cultural tourism city.
They are magnified again by technology, by the software that enables architects to visualise complex shapes and engineers to calculate them, by the photorealistic visualisation techniques that make a project seem physical before it is, by the construction techniques that turn these shapes into reality and, finally, by the internet’s crowded global marketplace of imagery.
Steven Chilton, the London-based architect of Sunac Guangzhou Grand theatre, is clear about its function. “It’s a very commercially driven endeavour,” he says, “some kind of popular symbolic gesture that the client is hoping [will] appeal to the broad audience that they will hope to bring into their development.” The design is achieved through a demanding process of high-speed evolution, whereby several practices are asked to come up with ideas and then develop a selection of these, from which an eventual winner is chosen, all in about six weeks.
“That’s what you’ve got to deliver,” he says. The architect is a “small part in a big industrial machine”. He therefore sees his job as making the most of the given conditions, to be inventive in the way the red swirl is achieved, to make it out of perforated aluminium panels such that it can naturally shade the building underneath. Chilton also had to work to a tight budget, something that may not be so true of the 400-metre-high Tower C at Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters Base, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the above-mentioned conjoined skyscraper. But Chilton recognises that both projects are in the same game of self-promotion.
Many of the practices behind this work, including Zaha Hadid Architects, are based in Britain and other European countries. Chilton cut his teeth working for Marks Barfield Architects on the design of the London Eye and then with the late Mark Fisher, designer of stage sets for performers from Pink Floyd to Lady Gaga. The Vancouver towers on stalks are by Thomas Heatherwick. The Qatar quartet are by Foster and Partners, who were once known for a chaster kind of modernism. An exception is the Zendai Himalayas centre, designed by MAD architects, whose founder, Ma Yansong, was born in Beijing. The lotus-shaped Evergrande Guangzhou stadium is by the American multinational Gensler.
Europe, though, is less fertile ground for these hyper-icons than other continents. Here, the wheels of procurement, consultation and planning grind more slowly and it’s harder to assemble the colossal single-owner sites you find in China. To build a theatre the size of his Guangzhou project, says Chilton, it might take “eight or 10 years before it’s there. In a way rightly so.” Having been an early adopter of the big icon idea, with the London Eye, the British capital is now more cautious. To be sure, there is the MSG London Sphere, a globe-shaped entertainment venue proposed for Stratford in east London, but that has faced headwinds in the planning process.
These kind of projects also offend the sensibilities with which many European architects are trained. Those practising now will have been warned when they were students against the “one-liner”, the appealing-looking idea that allows no further depth or complexity in a project. One-liners or, at best, two- or three-liners, are what clients of major projects all over the world now want. Chilton, who studied at the University of Manchester, is sensitive to accusations of crudeness and directs my attention to his Taihu Show theatre in Wuxi, where the idea of a bamboo grove is rendered as a set of slender columns, as evidence of a more subtle and abstract approach. Taste is changing fast, he says: “The sophistication of the population is growing exponentially.”
Mistrust of one-liners can be well-founded. They often have a way of being less joyous and soaring in the flesh than in the visualisations and of being somewhat sketchy on questions such as sustainability and their relationship to their surroundings. After the first buzz of the image they offer little more by way of enriching experiences. This matters more for major urban interventions than it does for the Guangzhou theatre, which does not claim to be more than a permanent show tent for Cirque-du-Soleil-type performances.
At worst, icons are Instagram fodder, urban clickbait. They are architectural bitcoin, items of digitally enabled inflation. Some, though, will go the way of art deco cinemas, brash works of entertainment architecture that achieved belated critical recognition. Or they might go the way of late Soviet architecture, sculptural brutalist extravaganzas eventually subjected to reappraisal in glossy architecture books, presented with an initial irony that slowly fades away. One thing is for sure: they are not going to go away.