What makes a building “iconic”? It’s a term that’s often used by developers and urban planners, seeking to create a building that will be memorable, successful, popular, and perhaps even come to symbolise its location or its owner. But how do building designers go about creating a new landmark for a city? Being tall is certainly an advantage when it comes to attracting attention – high-rise buildings literally stand out from the crowd – but it’s far from the only attribute of a genuine icon.

By definition, icon status is something only a minority of buildings will, or should attempt to, achieve. “Not all of the buildings in a city can be iconic,” says Paul Katz, managing principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox. “You could argue that a successful city is one where there are very few icons. If you think of very successful urban precedents like Paris, you’d be hard-pressed to name a specific building that’s an icon, apart from the Eiffel Tower. What you remember is the space of the streets, squares and gardens.”

Katz believes that the majority should be “background buildings”, designed primarily to perform their function well and provide amenities for the people of the city. “The real purpose is to build a building of quality that fits a certain purpose. A building of quality is not necessarily an icon, and an icon is not necessarily a building of quality. It’s more difficult to design a commercial building that’s an icon.” The Eiffel Tower serves very little practical purpose, he points out, and that’s part of its appeal.

As for what does make an icon, it often comes down to the estate agent’s mantra: location, location, location. “Architecture is like any art form – you try to create something that really matters,” says Joost Moolhuijzen, partner at Renzo Piano Building Workshop. “The most exciting projects have a wider significance for the public realm. What we’ve learned over the years is how important it is to understand the locality. We don’t just start a project with the meetings and brief. We go to the site, try to take it in, soak up the atmosphere.”

Moolhuijzen was lead architect on such well-known landmarks as the Shard in London, the KPN Tower in Rotterdam and several of the buildings on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, but he believes that great architecture begins as a response to its context, rather than setting out to be loved. “You don’t start by saying you want to design a popular building. Architecture tries to tell a story – it may be a good story or a very boring story. An iconic building expresses something, and it captures people’s imaginations whether they like it or not.”

Katz agrees: “An icon usually leverages specific characteristics of its context, either by juxtaposition or by reinforcing something. For example, the tallest building in the city usually catches the light in a really beautiful way, and it becomes very sculptural and elegant through verticality and expression. There’s a spiritual aspect of connecting the sky back to the earth.” On the other hand, KPF’s Shanghai World Financial Centre contrasts with the buildings around it in a different way: “They are mostly idiosyncratic and busy, while SWFC is more refined and muted.”

The design of a tall building relies on much more than an architect’s vision. “The development of high-rise buildings is as much infrastructure as it is architecture, and it’s the dialogue and the relationship between the architect and the engineers that is really crucial,” says Katz. “It’s almost impossible to teach tall buildings at university, so you really learn by doing it in the real world where the knowledge is handed down. The history of high-rise architecture is therefore a personal story of individuals contributing to a common endeavour.”

On November 20, 2014, Kohn Pedersen Fox Managing Principal Paul Katz passed away unexpectedly. WSP had the honour to talk to Mr. Katz in early 2014 about creating iconic high-rise buildings.

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