Enigmatic Iconicity

Sam Xu
University of Michigan, Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning
Thesis Project
Faculty: Mclain Clutter (website), Claire Zimmerman


Enigmatic Iconicity meditates on the phenomenon of architectural idolatry—cultural obsession with iconic buildings and the image proliferation of architectural iconicity—and speculates on novel possibilities for the iconic building and its image. Iconic architecture is the construction of spectacle. The contemporary iconic building is highly visible, memorable and photogenic; its image is marketed and proliferated across global stages in its endeavor for the achievement of absolute celebrity. It is a grandiose urban symbol and landmark for the culture it represents, an intentionally seductive and highly distinguished object in the city that narcissistically demands worship from the media and other visitors. The crisis of iconicity is that it is constantly in flux, slippery and unstable, continuously being readjusted and re-determined by its urban context, cultural perception, and image vantages. The architectural icon oscillates between the iconic and the anti-iconic. If the icon is distinctive, highly visible, photogenic, memorable, and regarded as a landmark for a city, then the anti-icon is something that blatantly refutes those characteristics and directly opposes those ideals. If the icon is about spectacle and image, then the anti-icon attempts subtle hiding and invisibility.

This proposal thus internalizes the dialectics of iconicity, and reconsiders the iconic building as both an icon and an anti-icon, mutable according to circumambient situations and continuously self-generating—both  visible and obstructed, both seductive and repulsive, both attention-captivating and attention-resisting, and both distinctive and hidden. On the site of the now-abandoned Spire project in Chicago (the alleged next world architectural icon), a new building typology emerges—a “post-icon”—one that acknowledges that iconicity has exhausted its strategies of standing out in the city and embraces a new aesthetic of perceptual mutability.

Treating the contextual buildings as figures themselves, the proposed building is an architectural conglomeration of carved out and appended adjacent building figures, forming a new figure in the city that is both distinctive and contextual. As a figure unbound by static shape, the building has multiple identities and personalities, as the building looks different from various perspectives in the city. The figure is chameleonic, adopting architectural details and textures of other iconic buildings in Chicago; the patterning of the building’s exterior is directly derived from its neighboring buildings’ façade patterns, hybridizing the textures as a surficial camouflage envelope over the building shape. From certain vistas, the patterning and form bleeds from one building onto another, allowing the building to humbly hide and subtly blend in with its surroundings, and from other views, the building stands out as an iconic figure as the misalignment of form and patterning with its neighboring buildings allows it to be distinctive. The building, aesthetically refined and enigmatically slippery, is highly visible, and, at the same time, highly hidden.

The building is an all-black mass, challenging visual perception and image comprehension by manifesting as either foreground or background. When one looks at the building toward the lake or toward the sky, the black is immediately distinctive and aggressively provocative (iconic). Conversely, when one looks at the figure with other buildings in the background, the black is able to disappear amidst the patterns and geometries of the city behind it. Its blackness conceals light and shadows, reducing and flattening the building’s figure into a silhouette in the city. At certain moments and from certain vantages, the mere blackness of the building reduced to a silhouette performs as an “architectural photobomb” in an image of the city; its blackness suggests that the building is, in a sense, non-imageable. This, in turn, provokes an additional unintentional iconicity, as the building’s non-imageability invites a deeper public fascination with its image.

From typically iconic views of the Chicago skyline, the building may appear as a shadow or may stand out as a completely unique building. Vantage points around the city locate the building and determine its iconicity by its appearance in juxtaposition with its context. As the building’s image is proliferated, either intentionally as an icon or unintentionally as background, it starts to organize the events around it. The building, through its images, starts to assume new meanings around the city.

This project therefore renders architecture as both image and non-image, celebrity and “non-ument”— an urban silhouette that is challenged to act as an apparatus that draws focus toward itself while bringing its context into focus. The enigmatic icon stands tall over Chicago, narcissistically demanding its recognition while hiding in plain sight.


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