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by Ilka & Andreas Ruby

There used to be a discourse about architecture as an act of comprehensive designing, taking into account as many programmatic parameters as possible and trying to accommodate function in all its layers. Yet discourse about the design of grand gestures, solidifying and expressing certain brands or clear messages, and reducing design to the provision of a single, unique shape subject to the client's interests is much more popular.

So, perhaps our discourse should now shift to the position of those clients. Which play is fair anyway? Architecture today is obsessed with icons. To be iconic or not to be seems the question for more and more architects, or even more pressingly so for their clients. This quest for iconicity reveals a subtle power shift from the city to architecture. At least in the western cultural context, icons were less incorporated by individual buildings as by the city. Think of New York (the grid with Central Park as a kind of a green super-plaza), Barcelona (the grid with chopped-off corners turning each street-crossing into a square), Paris (Haussmannian boulevards forming one continuous network), or L.A. (the highway system filled with low-density housing fabric) - each of these cities entails a structural iconicity that instantly conjures up a mental image merely when its name is mentioned. It's an image that does not need any individual pieces of architecture to be iconic, the city itself is the icon. This urban iconicity is emblematic of an understanding of social space in which the city itself is seen and celebrated as a representation of the community. Public space is invested as a public good to affirm the superiority of shared collective values over the randomness of individual interests.

With globalization taking command of our world in recent decades, this relationship between public and private domains has visibly changed. By means of the privatization of national corporations and deregulation of economic relationships, the nation-state has by and by surrendered its historic privilege of power to an intangible alliance of trans-national corporations. With a GDP equaling at times that of whole countries, some of these large corporations have become undercover agents in a political power play that is only symbolically led by democratic national governments.

What would appear to be the political will of a national government is often nothing but the cleverly disguised action plan of private corporations who infuse their interests with powerful lobby-networks into the political decision-making process. Since global corporations are primarily responsible to the economic community of their shareholders however, they exceed the reach of national politics anyway. Hence their sphere of influence is no longer bound by the historically defined territory of the nation-state, but constitutes a new global territory. This territory has to be branded with landmarks of power and as one can tell from the current boom of corporate cathedrals designed by a select league of brand architects, star architecture has become the crucial medium of this architectural iconization of power. Star architects are obviously well suited for this task, having been trained in this capacity during the boom in museum architecture during the 19805 and 19905. Cities then called upon famous architects to forge a clearly recognizable urban profile to score high in the growing national and international competition of cities spurred by new leisure-dominated urban life-styles. The city of Frankfurt is a clear case-study of this image-relaunch; in founding half a dozen museums between 1980 and 1990 (using prominent architects such as 0. M. Lingers, Hans Hollein, Richard Meier etc.) it upgraded its identity from a mere banking city to a genuine capital of culture. Starting in the mid-eighties, Vitra-CEO Rolf Fehlbaum utilized the same image building strategy by hiring architects of international acclaim such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza and Nicholas Grimshaw to put his furniture brand on the global map of design awareness. And yet a little later, in the mid-nineties, the Guggenheim foundation, merging the sides of commerce and culture, applied the same model to a global scale by proliferating itself through franchisee! museum dependencies sprouting like mushrooms in different cities across the world. The crucial prerequisite for the success of that strategy was clearly the shock-and-awe efficiency of the Guggenheim Bilbao, also known as the Bilbao Effect. The Guggenheim Bilbao showed how a highly spectacular piece of architecture is able to turn an entire city into the mere background of the isolated figure of that building.

Furthermore, it revealed how previously separate identities such as client, location, and architect can be made to converge by a highly calculated architectural branding strategy -since stating the name of any part of this alliance inevitably evokes the other identities as well; Gehry is now synonymous with the Guggenheim, Bilbao or both. Guggenheims convergence of city, architecture and brand has become, in the course of the last decade, a blueprint for a whole series architectural projects of cities which equally wanted nothing but to put themselves on the map of global recognition with the help of a piece of signature architecture. Seeing the results of the invited architecture competition for the new Gazprom headquarter in St. Petersburg in November 2006, it seems that the former Soviet gas company (now a stock-listed but still state-controlled corporation) has taken Guggenheim's very model of usurping an entire city as material support for its own brand to yet a higher level.

Bilbao was a city of regional importance when Guggenheim decided to situate its museum there; as a consequence annexing the city's identity to the Guggenheim's global prof i le was relatively easy. St. Petersburg by contrast is the incorporation of an iconic city, with its European urban plan imported by Peter the Great and the memorable low skyline of its golden cupolas. Yet Gazprom could not care less and simply wanted to exceed this urban iconicity of St. Petersburg with a building even more iconic. Hence it really needed architects like Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, and Massimiliano Fuksas who are all proven icon makers. And sure enough all passed the plate (as if they needed it). Narcissistically in love with their success, they have no idea how to transform it into influence.

The unique asset of real stars was once their ability to use their prominence to divert or surpass the otherwise unquestionable authority of power. Utterly lacking this kind of ambition and courage, the star architects of Gazprom star as public relation actors in an effervescent propaganda campaign that sends out a clear political message: it is possible to be a corporation that acts as the extended arm of the Russian government, a corporation that abuses its gas monopoly to punish disobedient neighbor states like Georgia by raising energy prices to impudent levels, or taking over competing companies whose leaders dared to support oppositional political movements and still get the iconic absolution of the avant-garde (or what is left of it).

The fact that the first prize was awarded to none of the famous stars, but to RMJM - the only non-Star, but corporate office in the competition line-up - confirms the impression that the actual mission of Koolhaas, Nouvel & Co. in this farce of a competition was nothing else than conjuring up a shining image of beauty that will help Gazprom polish up its contested reputation. You really can't say they did not do their job beautifully.

Ilka Ruby studied architecture in Aachen, Germany. She now works as an editor, writer and graphic designer. In 2001, Andreas and Ilka Ruby set up their joint agency as a production facility for publishing architectural books, magazines, curating exhibitions and consulting architects

1Article and letter were originally published in the Global Agenda section of 'Volume' magazine, issue 12 (2007). The Stockholm syndrome is the phenomenon of a victim sympathising with their abuser. - Ed.

№2 (2) 2007