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The best books on Architectural Icons

recommended by John Grindrod

Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain by John Grindrod

Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain
by John Grindrod


John Grindrod, the author of books about the built environment Iconicon and Concretopia, reflects on the ingredients that add up to an architectural icon as he selects five books that explore how buildings might define an era or a particular place in time.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain by John Grindrod

Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain
by John Grindrod

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Before we discuss books about architectural icons, perhaps you might reflect on what makes an architectural icon.

There are two separate ways of looking at that question. One is: architectural icons, self-declared, where the architect or developer, or the people behind the structure, have set out to create something that they want to be an icon of a place or of a moment. For example in Britain, we have a lot of millennial icons that were built around the turn of the millennium. Most famously the Millennium Dome, but also some 27 other massive projects undertaken. They were all icons not only of place but also of that moment in time, which is interesting.

Then I also think there are accidental icons, which weren’t intended to be icons at the time, but which in due course now represent a period in architecture or a movement in culture. That might include, at the simplest level, houses made by developers in the eighties that have come to represent Thatcherite times or the Reagan era, or they might be iconic of the ways our cities have evolved at certain epochs. They represent how we live at different times. There is architecture for example that represented a decentralising trend, or an attempt to break up established patterns of construction and development—out-of-town malls and business parks, that kind of stuff.

These are icons of a different sort. They aren’t icons of design by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, they are symbols of power and symbols of consumerism. These buildings mark a cultural moment in which a major shift occurred. We’ve been lumbered with a lot of these icons, even if the moments they marked we may have passed well beyond.

You’ve described Iconicon as part of a loose trilogy. You were brought up in urban, suburban, and rural environments, which has led you to explore the things we often take for granted in a great deal of our visual and felt experience.

I think what happens to a lot of us is that we grow up in a certain place, and then we live there for quite a long time, then move away, and eventually look back on it. While living there, you often totally take it for granted. It’s really only when you move away that you get a new perspective, that you realise the rest of the world is not like this. For me, that was quite an odd experience.

My book Concretopia was a story about the rebuilding of Britain from 1945 to 1979. I was really interested in that story, because the town that I grew up in, Croydon in South London, was massively rebuilt in that period. I grew up in a housing estate that was built at that time. In Croydon, I came to realise, they’re not particularly proud of their postwar heritage or history. In fact, there was precious little you could research. The absence of any kind of architectural history made it all quite a mysterious story. Which made me really, really interested in this.

“These buildings mark a cultural moment in which a major shift occurred”

This led me to look at other ‘ahistorical’ places, and try my hand at reverse engineering their story back to Croydon. Places that had more civic pride typically had more urban history to delve into, records that had been kept, information that was made available to the curious. What started out as curiosity about my childhood town turned into a geeky hobby that subsequently got wildly out of control.

We’ve looked before at the ways in which political debates about whether architecture is ugly or beautiful, that masquerade as arguments about style, in fact deal with matters that are very much at the heart of what of a society’s aspirations and fears. This leads to your first selection, The Age of Spectacle. Tom Dyckhoff argues that the iconic in architecture is a consequence of a globalised, market-led economy. Lavish buildings form part of a game of architectural oneupmanship.

Dyckhoff very successfully paints a picture of how these things get made, and why people want to build iconic structures in the first place. Living in these urban landscapes it is quite hard for us often to see what the drivers are for creating them. They seem like abstract forces. Whereas the urban landscape is the result of decisions by developers and architects and others. He is a very good storyteller who puts these protagonists front and centre.

The Age of Spectacle tells the story of specific places and developments, like London’s Docklands. This was a derelict part of London that featured for example as the backdrop for a film called The Long Good Friday, a hardboiled French Connection-type thriller set at a moment in the seventies when London was rather in ruins, in the same way that New York was at the time. This is Dyckhoff’s starting point, and he explains how you get from there to plans to redevelop the area for the London Olympics. In that film, it’s all about corruption and money.  He makes a really compelling series of connections about where the money comes from for these projects, who the people involved are, why they want to get the project built, and especially, why everybody is in a weird competition with one another. The competitive forces in fact shape the landscape, but it’s competition often at a very personal level.

Guggenheim Bilbao is another powerful example: the idea of using architecture to create branding for a city. Cultural regeneration becomes a very powerful way for people who are running cities to reconfigure their cities, change them to get more outward investment. This may sound like dry financial matters, but he really brings it all to life, like the drama that it is. Forces that might otherwise seem quite abstract, he is able to pinpoint and relate them vividly. Like Anna Minton, who does a similar account of cities through an economics lens, he looks at the macro forces at work, but moreover he brings us in to encounter the people involved, and these characters are what make for a really good narrative. The dramatis personae in these civic dramas are people often invisible to the public eye, but with their own motivations and their own agendas, which find themselves realised in our built environment.

He talks to some really big names like Zaha Hadid, big international figures who actually are almost as iconic as the buildings that they’re creating. She was creating her own brand in much the same way that her buildings were building a brand for the places that she was creating them for, which is really interesting. Behind the famous facades, of people or buildings, there are many, somewhat invisible people that remain largely unknown. In some cases though, they have been hugely influential in what gets built or doesn’t.

Guggenheim Bilbao perhaps is the original sin, but a place like Dubai may be the apotheosis of this iconic trend. Let’s talk about Pablo Bronstein’s book, Pseudo-Georgian London. This brought to mind the engravings of Piranesi, whose approach was documentary—to make a record of the crumbling ruins of the Roman Empire—but which he embellished with a great deal of imagination. Bronstein does something similar with pseudo-Georgian motifs that developers have alighted on to prettify otherwise banal buildings, hoping to make them more acceptable to the London real estate market.

And not only in London, but all over Britain. This is a glorious little book. Bronstein is an artist primarily, though reading his writing in this book you wouldn’t necessarily think so. His style is very dry and witty, and really revelatory. He manages to capture something elusive that we’ve seen happen in our towns and cities, something that we have not really been able to articulate: fake Georgian is an ideal way to monetise a desire for heritage-inspired design.

As a kid, he remembers going around big DIY stores and being seduced by all the eighties wallpaper and mock-up photos of ideal eighties houses. It may be tacky but it’s also designed to be seductive. It seeps into your brain. Many of the places featured in Bronstein’s drawings are like Laura Ashley wallpaper—rather ubiquitous, and yet totally ignored. These invisible, often risible buildings, he’s put centre stage. This is a really clever sleight of hand the way that he’s done it, creating fictional facades that are nonetheless totally feasible. None of them individually would qualify as architectural icons. They are the reverse of a branding strategy for a place, almost totally anonymous, urban fabric as unprepossessing wallpaper.

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That he’s able to step back from that and actually reveal them to you is a masterstroke. To my mind, these ersatz buildings are accidental icons, because they reveal a cultural drive towards an unthreatening idea of heritage, something that you see exemplified in Poundbury for example. King Charles is perhaps the ambassador, or the estate agent, for this idea of heritage. Often, these buildings don’t even result from the work of developers’ grand schemes as was the case in Poundbury. Often they’re the work of many individual architects and the result of their singular visions, not a pattern book version. The results are a brilliantly multi-layered rendition of this idea.

As Bronstein shows them, these urban scenes come across like a cardboard toy theatre that we all inhabit. His illustration style lends itself to thinking of them in this way, the city like an amazing theatrical model, a set where you can pull the layers back to constantly reveal a new detail, one which you can’t quite believe you’ve never noticed, as it’s been right in front of your eyes all this time.

At first I thought Bronstein was being sarcastic, but in fact he conveys a great deal of endearment for these otherwise tacky features of the built environment in the UK.

His writing betrays a sense of pride and even revelation. He can’t quite believe that all of this stuff exists! What’s more, he can’t quite believe that nobody else has noticed it! The project has the feel of an extraordinary anthropology experiment. Noticing things about ourselves as a culture that have so far gone unremarked, and doing so in a remarkable way.

Postmodernism is often regarded as a style that tries very hard to get noticed. It coincided in Britain with Thatcherism and the ‘right to buy’. Maggie and King Charles were accomplices in furthering an agenda for anything that looked resolutely un-modern. The UK has ended up, as this book Post-Modern Buildings in Britain shows, with a very eclectic, fairly adventurous array of different types of buildings. Did Postmodernism tee up the possibilities for the millennial iconic thrust that you described at the outset? Why this book and not other books about Postmodernism?

This book is panoramic. The authors have traveled all around the country and chosen really classic examples of postmodern architecture. That’s one thing that makes this book so great. Their focus is on buildings with many different uses, residential or commercial or whatever. And they’ve also focused on some of the really big-name architects that are associated with the style, James Stirling for example, who produced a lot of the doctrine or ideology of this style.

It’s a beautifully illustrated book, too, like a massive energy rush of this stuff! Although in Britain Postmodern architecture feels like quite a small sample, and as you say, it set the stage for all sorts of millennial construction, nonetheless it was really in its prime from the beginning of the eighties until the early nineties. It waned, and there were later postmodern revivalists. Because it came in waves, and without any true consistency, it’s quite easy to dismiss. Bringing all these elements together, you realise there is actually a critical mass architecturally, enough of a movement here to talk about as a trend with significance, with both really good buildings as well as many really terrible buildings knocking around, as well as much construction that was really half-hearted.

Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood are the very opposite of being half-hearted. They showcase the full-blooded, most exciting end of post-modern architecture in Britain, the really extravagant, colourful, fun, outrageous, beautiful, and even cinematic examples of this style. One of the things this book communicates so clearly is that this architecture is more like film sets than what we typically associate with buildings. Postmodernism is more like a Hollywood studio. Architects who championed this style of course were drawing on many different elements of architectural history, whether it was Art Deco, a comeback from Classicism, or whatever. They’re pulling these references through, ultimately in a rather silly pneumatic way, so it’s very glamorous. To take a contrasting style that is perhaps better known in Britain or regarded as British in architectural circles, we can compare it with Brutalism. With Brutalism, there’s an enjoyment of the rough, the sturdy, and the monumental. Whereas with the archetypal postmodern building, it’s a celebration of decoration, of surfaces, and of delight.

After a sustained and often very public backlash against modernist architects, the profession actually wanted to do stuff that people liked. You might even say that there’s a slight neediness among some of the buildings featured here. This book is terrific because demonstrates what a broad spectrum this represents, and nonetheless connections that you can draw between the many varied elements in this variety. It was a moment in architecture that could encompass Stirling, for example, one of the architects who did everything in that period that it was possible to do. But also someone like Terry Farrell, whose career really took off in that postmodern era, and whose work is all about the everyday, a love of the 1930s, radio design, that sort of thing. Once again, Hollywood Studios springs to mind. The excitement and delight of all of that is captured so well in this book, in a way that, as a style in Britain, it’s been largely ignored, not unlike the faux Georgian. We maybe haven’t realised quite how much of this landmark architecture there is all over Britain, and how much of it is actually really good. This book is a brilliant catalogue that way, it’s exciting and really fun.

Speaking of fun books about architectural icons, the last two works on our list are novels. I love that you’ve introduced fiction into the mix. A London architect is the protagonist of the fourth book on your list, City of the Mind by Penelope Lively. Is that why you chose this book?

In American fiction from the 1980s, there are people writing about the sort of urban landscapes we’ve been discussing, the equivalent of the London Docklands—the financial districts and waterfronts. Think of someone like Bret Easton Ellis, or a book like Bonfire of the Vanities, works from the period that really encapsulate the high stakes atmosphere of the time, where the city becomes almost part of the plot—a surface or a foil for much that is garish or outrageous. To me, it’s fascinating that in Britain, we don’t really have an equivalent of that sort of fictional intrigue for the Docklands. This is one reason I chose this book, which has as its hero the architect of a building in Docklands.

Penelope Lively writes quiet, very sensitive novels with much internal musing, all infused with a sense of the ghosts of history. Her books are about the ghosts of history, and by that I mean architectural history, too. Even though it’s a very similar landscape to the sort of American novels I’ve mentioned, the approach is like the total opposite, even though it’s a very similar urban landscape. Here, a British writer has approached that post-industrial, financialised urban existence in this very internal way.

The hero of the story, this architect, is going through a divorce. It’s a novel about the big building that he has designed that’s going up in Docklands, where the building is a cipher for the history of Docklands. Our protagonist experiences weird pangs of historic angst, almost as if these are forces welling up out of the very ground and out of the docks themselves. His professional and personal life ravels and unravels around this cityscape, his divorce and the failure of his marriage, but also the healing that takes place. Unpeeling the layers, the architectural history of the Docklands reveals itself too through the construction of the building he is working on.

“These works of fiction helped pull the scales from my eyes, and helped me think about architecture, the way that things that have been built in my lifetime”

This idea of layers of history is a theme Lively comes back to often in her work. She wrote a brilliant children’s book, about a new housing estate, built upon an old landscaped garden. All of the old landscape garden features begin to show through. They seem to appear overnight in people’s estate gardens and even in their houses, hedges and horticultural details from the 18th century. And it’s a delightful thing!

City of the Mind is like a much more serious exploration of that idea. Lively is clearly haunted herself by this idea of history reclaiming us. What an amazing way to approach Docklands, which were the product of the Development Corporation, where the clients were often huge US companies, designed around Canary Wharf, where massive skyscrapers created a kind of tabula rasa really, with no reference to the historic nature of this place. They were perhaps thinking about making history with this new landscape. Actually, the old landscape is still very much there, with its many weird ghosts of empire and trade and globalisation from a different era. This evocative treatment of an otherwise largely anonymous corporate development makes this a very powerful book. She’s written a lot of novels, won the Booker Prize, and is very well-regarded. Nonetheless, hardly anyone seems to have read this novel. That it seems a little obscure only heightens the appeal for me.

That notion of sediments of history is so compelling. You can’t quite escape the earlier sediments, even as you try to build atop them. I was a stockbroker in the City of London for many years, and I love the way that Postmodernist icons like Lloyd’s of London, or No.1 Poultry coexist in a fairly harmonious way with churches by Christopher Wren. Similarly, to get to the Docklands from central London, one still has to pass through an industrial urban landscape of brick to get to the glass and steel of Canada Water, which looks like a materialisation of the Big Bang in financial markets.

A whole new wave of technology was needed to actually do this work of ever more complex finance, which wouldn’t fit in existing buildings. That partly explains the upward thrust, the large floorplans, the glass and steel. Technology has become a basic fact as a driver of new development.

Ghosts of the past also feature prominently in Hilary Mantel‘s book, Beyond Black. She’s famous for books about courtly intrigue. I guess you might call this one a ghost story?

Absolutely. You might say that many of her novels have ghost stories at their heart, be they historic ghosts or literal ghosts of the more supernatural kind. This book is about a medium, so we are in supernatural territory. She spends her career traveling around the fringes of London, doing small seances and events in little halls around the very edge of the city, leading a very dreary existence. For a time, we are led to believe that she is simply a fraudster or charlatan. Soon we realise that actually, she actually does indeed have these spirit guides with whom she communes and that many of them are incredibly unpleasant voices, a cast of despicable characters who have a hold on her and provoke her all the time.

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About halfway through the novel—no spoilers – she makes a big decision. After becoming a little bit more successful, she decides to move house, to move away from her past, to cut all the ties and move somewhere brand new, where there is no ghostly resonance, to rid herself of all of these spirits. She won’t be haunted anymore. And so she and her really horrible manager set off shopping for a new build house. There’s a long sequence, which sustains the rest of the novel, with an obsession with newbuild houses and all the accoutrements of newbuild developments. I doubt there has ever been such a great depiction of the Postmodern newbuild houses in Britain or of post-80s neighbourhood housing in all of fiction.

This unparalleled brilliance in describing something so seemingly banal makes this book a comic masterpiece, although it’s a very dark novel as well. Dark and very, very funny. Mantel delightfully skewers the house-buying industry, the process of buying a house off-plan, the small rooms, the endless debates about whether tiny rooms could be knocked together, and then maybe you don’t need to put the wall up when you build the house, but which would cost more money… It all comes across like an elaborate and byzantine way to make more money out of the people that are buying the houses, and shows the horrible superficiality of an industry that is providing something that is actually an essential human need.

This taps into my own obsession with icons of the invisible variety. Mantel reveals, in ways that are very funny indeed, but also deadly serious, things that are hidden in our urban fabric, even though they are in plain view. Things that maybe we haven’t thought about very much. On first reading this book I came away really shocked that somebody had written about this and in fact that somebody had noticed it at all. It was a surprise to me that you could write about it at all, this almost totally invisible phenomenon that went on for decades—these things just got built, in some kind of almost unaccountable way. And nobody ever wrote about them. When we did write about suburbia, it was typically about 1930s suburbia, Victorian suburbia, or bygone decades. It was never about the actual suburbia that was being built now.

So this is a brilliant novel about the icons of modern suburbia, these weird houses with their weird, generic developer names, These works of fiction helped pull the scales from my eyes, and helped me think about architecture, the way that things that have been built in my lifetime, the unexpected angles and points of view that reveal the extraordinary in the commonplace.

London comes across as a city haunted by malignant demons, but in a way the ultimate villain maybe is, as you suggest, the urban existence in the 21st century, uncomfortable truths and true histories somehow obscured or veiled by this shabby euphemism of development architecture. In closing our discussion of architectural icons books, what iconic building or buildings do you particularly admire or most despise?

There are lots that I really admire, actually. With a period of reflection in the 20-odd years from the millennium, I actually feel a huge amount of emotional connection to those projects, in a way that has surprised me. At the time the Millennium Dome was built, for example, at the turn of the last century, it was maybe a bit of a national joke. And now you realise, for a period of time, people have really, really adopted that building. And it actually has come to mean something important, the many events it has hosted over two decades. I was very drawn to Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’.

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I think a lot of failed icons are buildings that want to be an icon, but just aren’t and are just substandard. You can no longer see the Gherkin from Central London, only from East London. No other line of site is available to you. It is the only viewpoint of it now, as it, like many worthy buildings, has been crowded out by a lot of really substandard, anonymous constructions that have been put up by developers. They’ve all arrived on the scene with the idea that they were all going to be icons, and they were all going to be the ‘next Gherkin’. The fanciful names and nicknames tell you as much.

With a few exceptions like Rogers’ Leadenhall building, one of a small number of recent buildings with any kind of architectural merit, many if not most are distinguished above all by the fact that they are just there as an investment opportunity. They were not built to enhance anyone’s life, or the life of the city, as a place that we live in. I think that’s really obvious. That’s where the idea of the architectural icon really falls down. And yet it continues. In Nine Elms in North London, for example, scores of internationally famous architects and all manner of developers, with much financial backing from all over the world, are in competition with one another putting up competing icons next to one another in an area that has come to feel simply like a failure of planning and a failure of basic decency, really, in a time when we’ve got a housing crisis in Britain. Especially if you consider that many of these new developments will result in a load of places no one’s ever going to live in. They’re just an investment opportunity. It is outrageous. And in a way, that sets itself up as an icon of contemporary London, the most desirable place you could possibly want to live in your life, but where no one actually lives.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

February 3, 2023

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John Grindrod

John Grindrod

John Grindrod is the author of Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green BeltConcretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain and How To Love Brutalism. He has written for publications including the Sunday Times, Guardian, Financial Times, Big Issue and The Modernist. He has given talks at the V&A, RA, Southbank Centre, RIBA, Museum of London, Tate Liverpool and a number of universities, as well as working part-time at Faber as Senior Campaigns Manager. He runs the popular website and can be contacted on Twitter: @Grindrod.

John Grindrod

John Grindrod

John Grindrod is the author of Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green BeltConcretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain and How To Love Brutalism. He has written for publications including the Sunday Times, Guardian, Financial Times, Big Issue and The Modernist. He has given talks at the V&A, RA, Southbank Centre, RIBA, Museum of London, Tate Liverpool and a number of universities, as well as working part-time at Faber as Senior Campaigns Manager. He runs the popular website and can be contacted on Twitter: @Grindrod.