The look of many British cities has changed over the past 10 years with an eruption of glass towers, dockside developments and quirky bridges. As we chart the impact with our Changing Cityscapes project, Mark Irving asks how did fancy architecture become the calling card of choice for ambitious urban centres?
A decade or so ago, the word "iconic" was a public relations cliche used of rising pop stars or the latest designer object. Now it's a label employed with utter seriousness (or shamelessness) by regeneration officers and their political bosses to describe their new city centre building - often before the foundations have even been laid.
In fact, if it isn't iconic or iconic-in-the-making, then it probably won't get passed by the Planning Department. Architecture matters now at regional and local levels in the UK - it always has across the Channel, but there we are - in a way that it simply didn't when New Labour really did seem new at the end of the 90s.
Love or hate the new shape of Britain's cities - it all starts here...
Back then, new architecture was a threat, something discussed enthusiastically by critics but generally regarded with trepidation by the public. Then in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened, and it soon became clear that the Basque region's multimillion dollar investment gamble - in which Frank Gehry's signature (a posher form of "iconic") building was its focus - was working. Tourism soared, businesses grew and once-dreary old Bilbao appeared on the map of cool places to visit.
We want a bit of that, thought the more forward-thinking council leaders around the UK. Out went the hurt vocabulary of local stalwarts protesting against some new fangled city centre building proposal and in came sensual project descriptors - "sweeping", "gestural", "embracing" - favoured by council chief executives and their advisors.
Architecture segued from the edges of nerd-dom into high fashion and then, by a process of declension, into the mainstream. Newly built libraries, hotels, railway and underground stations, restaurants and offices featured in glossy magazines, given the photographic once-over more usually seen in top-end car adverts. The architects themselves - either startlingly bald or sporting leonine manes - were lauded as the new style gurus.
It helped that Tony Blair and the New Labour policy wonks thought this new architecture thing was all great and definitely central to the UK excellence agenda, even if they said this while sitting on chairs designed by British designers but inevitably manufactured abroad.
In this market of branded urban identities, cities are not known for what they make, do or sell but for what they look like
Promotion - of Cool Britannia, of newness itself - was the game, and because architecture has the trump card of making all the good news solidly real (for a while), it became a valuable strategic tool at a national and regional level.
It would take only one "iconic" building to coalesce a new urban quarter ("cultural cluster" is the new phrase), transforming a tumbleweed wasteland into a scene of bold tectonic moves and tinkling glasses raised high in mutual self-congratulation.
Ministers would be photographed against this or that newly self-conscious city centre skyline and the message would be clear: Glasgow/Gateshead/London/Belfast/Manchester - a quick look at the notes to check before talking to camera - had arrived. In this market of branded urban identities, cities are not known for what they make, do or sell but for what they look like.
A city's skyline is now a marketing device.
Several factors precipitated this shift. At one level, devolution played a part in underlining the economic and cultural need for distinctness across the UK.
Architecture - think of the Scottish Parliament building designed by Enric Miralles (opened in 2004) or the Welsh Assembly (opened 2006) by Richard Rogers Partnership - would elegantly shape ambitions for autonomy and international recognition. At another, a rampant property boom that raged unchecked for a decade (until now) fuelled speculative city-centre projects, many of dubious quality but which will now blight our cities.
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Then there was the death of old style Modernism, where the use of architecture as a way of programming society - a top-down use of power - spawned some very boring, sometimes horrific results.
In its place has come the notion of architecture as a catalyst for cultural change, seeding rather than dictating the possibility of improvement. Not least, however, has been the use of building activity as a default solution for problems that are far too complex for architecture alone to solve.
Many such contemporary projects - Beetham Tower in Manchester, designed by Ian Simpson Architects (completed 2006) is a notable example - bring a striking sculptural presence to a hitherto forlorn part of town. Looking like a giant exclamation mark - contemporary! - it's doubtful whether its particular energy adds much meaning to the immediate urban context. Being a catalyst for change, as its supporters would have it, may be expecting too much from it".
Put simply, the instrumental use of architecture to reinvigorate our city centres or derelict areas is only half the story: simple acts of resistance on the part of local planners or community groups - fighting off the march of the ubiquitous chain store; preserving local history and memory - can prove a far more successful strategy. Here, the internet has enabled individuals to bind their voices together in swiftly organised and persuasive ways.
Architecture alone isn't the answer, although it remains a great tool to make manifest a city's capacity for change.
Ten years on, its shiny promises are regarded with more educated scepticism. Less is more, we were once told. Today, we want quality throughout our urban experience, from imaginative policy-making through to high-grade street furniture: more really is more. Forget 'iconic' - good common sense is enough and can be beautiful.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Manchester's Beetham Tower looks like the citadel from "Half Life 2", it so dominates the skyline. But not necessarily in a good way, it looks like something a six-year-old would make with a basic LEGO kit! I don't see why anyone would want to travel to Manchester just to see it. Now Liverpool on the other hand has one of the most iconic skylines in Britain, and none of that reputation is due to it's more modern buildings, as good as they may be; it's all down to the classics.
Steven, Manchester (ex Liverpool), UK
The silhouette is now the new identity for any major city. It is as much a part of a city's logo as the typeface on the marketing campaign. This is the reason why so many oddly shaped building have erupted. Now every city feels that it needs its own Gherkin-type iconic landmark, it has become the new uniform for the tourist destination, whose marketing campaigns come and go with alarming frequency. The typeface and the snappy tagline can be changed but the daft constructions will be around for a generation or more.
Neale Gilhooley, Edinburgh, UK
I would agree with this article - particularly the bit about local groups making more of a difference. Living in a part of Docklands with a significant Iconic Building quotient, and working in Barking - which wants to - the 'trickle-down effect' of regeneration these buildings are supposed to create is a myth. What happens is that where it encourages more wealthy people to move to an area, they live in remote, gated communities, shop elsewhere and local people see no change except it forces up property prices. The local community end up getting displaced, and the problems of poverty just get shifted to somewhere else. Having said that, projects that genuinely include local people in the process and offer them something new CAN make a huge difference. But on a local level, which in political terms, isn't very sexy.
Martin Swan, London
Yes, I am all for the modern architecture but along side we need a complete modernisation of the public transport systems in the UK; Here in France and also in most other countries modern tramway and tram train systems are mushrooming in most towns giving a pleasant environement to the city centre and suburbs. Britain seems intent on negative thinking and at every stage puts up objections to well thought out schemes
Grahame Smedley, Le Pouliguen, Loire Atlantique, France
Most cities see building "upwards" as a way to create interest, and solve traditional problems like lots of commuting. That's fine, but we need to make sure we safeguard and improve the green spaces as well as providing large green spaces within cities. We also need to make sure we provide generous living spaces for people and not just rabbit hutches for automaton workers. Building tall could realise huge benefits for all but we have to engage in this revolution with the moral certainty that what we create will be a quality space to live in for generations to come and the envy of the world, not just x hundred metres high and shiny and desirable as a "have now" fashion item, otherwise they are doomed yet again to become the slums of tomorrow.
Alastair, Drogheda, Ireland
I have to disagree with you there Stephen from Manchester. I am from Liverpool myself and love everything about the city, but the Beetham tower is a fantastic building. Whilst classic buildings are great, its the new cutting edge buildings that are better. Old buildings are overrated, if you think about it the old buildings are generally smaller, more cramped, with a terrible layout and they are almost always over the top. Unfortunately people cannot accept the new because they feel safer in the past, at least the past is familiar! The past is ridiculous the future is what we should aim for.
Jack, Liverpool, UK
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