And still they come. The Gherkins, Shards, Walkie-Talkies, Cheesegraters, Scalpels, giant iPhones, Bird’s Nest stadiums, flying tabletops, big pants. Like the conveyor belt of consumer items that older readers will remember in Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game, the supply of funny-looking buildings with funny names seems never-ending. Nicknames are converted into brands; satire and marketing merge. There has been an era of architectural invention like few others, combined with a sense of hollowness, the feeling of not knowing what it’s all for.
The “iconic” building is the most obvious architectural phenomenon of our age yet, somehow, no one has quite done what Tom Dyckhoff does with The Age of Spectacle, which is to tell its story clearly and plainly. Perhaps we all thought it would go away. Architects and critics have been pointing out the limitations of the concept since early in the century and the joke seemed to be wearing a bit thin even before the 2008 crash. But still they come.
As Dyckhoff points out, iconic architecture is a consequence of a globalised, market-led economy, wherein property developers more than municipalities are the main shapers of cities. Cities, and large-scale developments within them, have to compete for attention from investors and consumers, so – somewhat like the mating rituals of exotic birds – they have to display themselves with ever greater elaboration. Never mind that, if everyone is doing something extraordinary, it becomes ordinary: this drawback only feeds the hyperinflation of iconicity.
Dyckhoff couples this narrative with another, which is the rediscovery of historic city centres by the middle classes from about 1960 on, of their diversity and edginess, their markets and odd corners, until these places and their qualities acquire financial value, which changes them profoundly: gentrification, in a word. In time, canny developers found ways to make profit out of such places as Covent Garden’s old market buildings in London and Faneuil Hall in Boston. Later, they worked out how to build entirely new developments that replicated that diversity, edginess, etc, from scratch.
Dyckhoff takes London as his principal case study and at times The Age of Spectacle feels almost like two books: one a history of the modern transformations of the British capital, the other a study of architectural meaning. The connections between the two are not always perfectly made, but the underlying thread is clear: ultimately, it’s all about shopping. It’s about buying and therefore selling. In societies that are in many ways fragmented, people are unified by retail and by the shared stimulation of the sense of sight – by spectacle.
His tone is jaunty, anecdotal, engaging, sometimes personal, enlivened by the voice of, for example, an old-time resident of Covent Garden who felt dispossessed by the changes to his area, even though the physical fabric stayed largely intact. There are enjoyable explorations of the modern city, for example, when Dyckhoff gets himself wired up so as to record the way his eyeballs react (that is, exactly as the developers intend) at Westfield shopping centre in west London.
There’s a pitfall, not entirely avoided, which is to accept the rhetoric of iconic architecture at its own self-aggrandising value, and to see it as more of an overwhelming force than it actually is. Dyckhoff can be too much of a mall rat with his material, diverted by the glitter of nice stories rather than digging deeper into the different causes and effects of his examples or progressing the argument. In the end, although a self-declared optimist, he leads himself to the pessimistic conclusion that the future will probably hold more of the same. Which may indeed be the case, but the service that Dyckhoff has done to understanding modern culture would be greater still if he had pushed his thinking a bit further.
• The Age of Spectacle: Adventures in Architecture and the 21st-Century City by Tom Dyckhoff is published by Random House (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010