Monday, January 17, 2011

"Urban Icons" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

When I was a child an image of the Taj Mahal became my image of India! It seemed that the Eiffel Tower was also France; and the Great Wall of China was indeed that vast land. As I grew up and traveled I hung new facts, ideas, and concepts onto these images, in the same manner that children decorate Christmas trees making them more meaningful and complex. Looking back, I realize that these iconic representations never faded, nor were they replaced. These emblems became intellectual skeletons that held large bodies of reality, composed of many structured ideas. Thus, my icons were memorable images that anchored my awareness of reality and allowed me to expand my knowledge system within a structure that could be sourced when needed. One icon can lead me to more sub-icons, and so forth, providing me with a pantheon of information, all hung on one symbol that carries along with it the meaning of an entire cluster.

To some extent these icons melted into the complicated mosaic of my perceived truth, giving me a sense of reality. Yet these icons persisted in my memory as the symbols of something much larger. The human mind is an interesting contraption that works on a hierarchy of labels which identity things, in a simplified and stereotyped form. This results in over-simplifying matters and creating implicit biases about “the way things are.” But it also allows us to deal with masses of otherwise unrelated data and facts. Icons, symbols, emblems and simulacra work as a theory of knowledge that is founded on signifiers, labels and images. Like a tree trunk, with branches and then little twigs from which leaves flourish, the mind uses an incredible network of inter-linked icons, which freely relate to form a far more complex matrix of concepts.

In his book, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch proposed that the human mind uses “landmarks” within urban areas, or “districts,” that have visible “edges” to create a mental knowledge system of the city. This mental map includes “paths” and “nodes”. Urban Icons play the same roles for cities that landmarks play in urban districts, or that mega-icons play for nations and cultures. National capitol complexes like Lutyen’s Raj Path in New Delhi; the Mall in Washington, D.C.; or on a smaller scale, the new Capitol Complex in Thimphu, all use iconography to compose a pattern. They use an iconic language to symbolize the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. The language implies a system of checks and balances in democracy, or, as in Versailles, the all pervasive power of a monarchy.

All languages are generically symbolic, and any system of symbols can compose a language. Written words signify both the phonetic sound and the cognitive idea which it represents. Identifying and labeling “differences” is an important process in the cognitive system of representation. In the same way urban icons signify both the object itself and various cognitive ideas the building represents.

Our cities are formed by a myriad of building types with every function needed by the human race to carry on their existence. Some structures transcend beyond the mundane tasks of daily life, and become cultural, religious, psychological or business icons. As small groups of people organize into larger societies, they require iconic monuments to signify their organization and structure as a unique civilized people. This becomes more pronounced as cultures and societies evolve into nation states, and these political structures require symbolic identity in order to sustain themselves and grow. Thus, urban icons are conscientiously created, explicit statements, about the nature of cultures, societies, nations or political systems. Sagara Familia is an explicit statement about the rising nationalism of Catalonia, though we may see it merely as an unusual and creative experiment. The Pyramids were conscientious statements about the eternal order of the Pharos. The symbolic nature of these structures far surpasses any functional requirement they may nominally fulfill.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud considered symbols as capacities within the mind to lodge and store any fact, idea or concept. Within the cognitive mental system any symbol can find free association with any other symbol. These associations and relationships build ideas out of facts, and through free association, build concepts out of ideas. Thus, our mental constructs of cities, that are as complex as New Delhi, are in fact clusters of iconic memories that interact and generate multiple layers of knowledge, interpretation and meanings. The vast majority of urban fabric has no symbolic or iconic content! It is just a texture upon which life continues. This mundane urban fabric however forms a backdrop, or canvas, upon which a vast and highly complex urban landscape can emerge.

Landmarks create “familiar” objects to which we all develop affection. We like these because they give us the sense of peace that comes with knowing where we are! As Kevin Lynch noted:

“Way-finding is the original function of the environmental image, and the basis on which its emotional associations may have been founded. But the image is valuable not only in this immediate sense in which it acts as a map for the direction of movement; in a broader sense it can serve a general frame of reference within which the individual can act, or to which he can attach his knowledge. In this way it is like a body of belief, or a set of social customs: it is an organizer of facts and possibilities”.

Sociology can be seen as the science of analyzing the structure of relations between groups of people. These relations may be economic ones between classes or productive entities. Thus, the iconic Bank of China by I.M. Pei is more than just a place where clerks carry out financial activities. It is the symbol of China’s economic dominance. Likewise, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome signifies the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church. As such its very scale and explicit monumentality create a clear statement, a symbolic statement, of the world grasp and power of the Roman Catholic Church. In the same manner New York City is a collection of icons which mingle in our memories and give us a conglomerate image of the city. An endless list of skyscrapers ranging from the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Centre, the United Nations, and the new Hurst Building all work together to make a network of multiple and interacting icons, images and memories. That is what makes New York City such an exciting and vibrant metropolis.

Just as New York City is full of economic icons, Paris is full of cultural icons. The churches, palaces, gardens, museums, squares, “passages”, quays, arcades, and monuments all create a language in the mind about the city. While the core idea of New York City is business dominance, and the city’s global economy, the core idea in Paris is cultural dominance projected through images of its history, religious past, art and haut culture! London’s core interest is governance and global reach. This interest is not “governance” in the sense of administering towns and cities, but the concept of ruling through law, justice, policing and a range of British institutions which make it a world power. Civility, “good British taste”, due process and manners are what the city is all about. Rather than making “business” the central focus of the society, business seems a vehicle for the diffusion of the British idea of the civil society. In a similar manner New Delhi is a collection of imperial, “ruling” and governing icons, while Mumbai flaunts its economic icons: the Air India Building, the Stock Exchange and so on. Urban icons are indeed not just the image of the city, but the language of the city. No doubt all cities contain a variety of icons which represent the economic, political and cultural essence of the city.

The mind stores a limited number of iconic images creating an operational representation of the city. It may store mental images of urban districts like Connaught Place; urban edges like Marine Drive in Mumbai; or urban landmarks like the Qutub Minar, but all of these are iconic and their symbolic meaning far outweighs any functional use one may attempt to construe. The mind may store a cluster of icons like the White House, the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, all clustered together in one complex. It may lodge images of zones defined by landmarks and edges, each having vibrant specialized activities and unique characters generating a remembered ambiance. The resulting “mental map” of the city is different for each person! Thus, our feelings about various cities are very different than the feelings of our friends about particular cities.

What is clear is that architecture plays the pivotal role in the creation of urban icons, and thus the making of the cities of our minds. It is this system of urban icons that weds us to memories giving structure and content to each city we visit, or potentially experience. A city guide is little more than an attempt to document an encyclopedia of urban icons, and in a sense to “pre-load” the basic data on the city into our mental hard discs! Thus, we enter a new city with a pre-loaded template of patterns, urban form and structure making it easier for us to navigate in a new ambiance.

It is important that every structure in a city does not scream out like an anal retentive infant demanding attention. This “screaming” by nuevo riche builders and clever architects is creating a cacophony of visual chaos. Urban design, which should give order to street facades, and structure the “skin of cities”, is non-existent. In our administrators’ minds there are only two dimensional city plans and three dimensional buildings. Instead of utilizing them for the city good, they are only controlled, contorting the city like Chinese feet tied to grow in an odd, dysfunctional form. The idea of urban fabric: the notion of arcades supporting rather dull, yet dignified street fronts; the idea of “passages” leading to pocket plazas and open gardens; the idea of boulevards terminating with monuments; the idea of vistas being created by building alignments and axis; the idea of sea fronts and river edges being urban events which structure the city . . . . . none of these are part of our mental map of how to make cities.

Our present design culture lacks any knowledge of the city image as a total field of the interactions of elements, patterns and sequences. Urban cognizance is basically a time phenomena oriented about an object of immense complexity. A beginning step in gaining a holistic understanding of our cities will be to grasp the elemental parts. But a much bigger step will be to understand the role of components, structured relations between them, and the systems of knowledge and meaning that emerge. In this sense, urban icons are a starting point from which one can explore the urban fabric, analyze its weaknesses and begin to set a “design problem” for enhancing and facilitating better urban experiences and life styles.

Urban icons not only have a putative value as pieces of art; or as the best representatives of entire typologies of buildings; or as cultural symbols and signifiers, but they are the generic material from which great cities emerge. The structures presented here in this journal are a clue to a meaningful science of imagineering more beautiful, more vibrant and more livable urban settings.


Benninger, Christopher C., “Imagineering and the Design of Cities”, Proceedings of the European Biennale at Graz, Biennale Secretariat, 2001.

Boulding, Kenneth E., The Image, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1956.

Kepes, Gyorgy, The New Landscape, Chicago, P. Theobald, 1956.

Langer, Susan, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, New York, Scribner, 1953.

Lynch, Kevin, Image of the City, New York, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1959:

Thiel-Siling, Sabine, Editor, Icons of Architecture in the 20th Century, New York, Prestel, 2004.

Trowbridge, C.C., “On Fundamental Methods of Orientation and Imaginary Maps,” Science, , Vol. 38, No. 990, Dec. 9, 1913, pp.888-897.

Whitehead, Alfred North, Symbolism and Its Meaning, New York, Macmillan, 1958.

Wohl, R. Richard and Strauss, Anselm L., “Symbolic Representation and the Urban Milieu,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. LXIII, No. 5, March 1958, pp. 523-532.

*Christopher Benninger practices architecture from “INDIA HOUSE,” his studios in Pune, and from his studios in Thimphu, Bhutan, where he is designing the National Capitol Complex. He studied Urban Planning at MIT and Architecture at Harvard University where he later taught. He founded the School of Planning at Ahmedabad and the Center for Development Studies and Activities at Pune. He is a Distinguished Professor at CEPT and on the Board of Governors of the School of Planning and Architecture at New Delhi. In 2007 he received the Golden Architect Award for Lifetime Achievement.


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