The History Of The Iconic Buildings And Marketing Cities

Iconic buildings are a powerful tool when it comes to marketing cities with such buildings as tourist destinations. Such buildings are highly photogenic and have undoubted seductive power when it comes to fuelling architourism. Attention grabbing sleek images combined with celebrity architects are a powerful tool for generating publicity and luring visitors. After regeneration projects which render a place a new identity, the images of iconic buildings usually become the symbol of a city’s new identity for example how the Burj al Arab has been a symbol of Dubai. As cities struggle to position themselves as destinations, use of architecture helps in giving them a visible distinction.

Iconic buildings have often been described as spectacles but when it comes to architourism, the goal is to produce the ultimate spectacle. Dubai as a tourism destination has over the time risen to unrivalled status and much of the credit goes to the city’s various iconic structures (Worth, 2009). Abu Dhabi is another example of cities using contemporary architecture to market themselves as the architourism capitals of the world. The US$27 billion Saadiyat Island development is fronted as a cultural district that fuels one’s imagination and as the only place in the world where five of the top architects in the world have come together to produce the biggest ever architourism spectacle. The question that arises in this regard however is, will the Saadiyat Island really be the ultimate? Will it be the last?

So, have iconic buildings outlived their usefulness and is architourism on its deathbed?

Many architectural critics are of the view that the end of the iconic building is upon us. According to some critics, iconic buildings are primarily about image and ostentation, not context. Iconic buildings are a disassociation of place and culture and an expensive architectural jewel. With such views, the question of where this leaves architourism and whether such thinking will affect branding strategies and destination marketing arises. Budget is an important issue when it comes to iconic buildings because contemporary architectural jewels do not come cheap (Westley, 2006). With many economies still reeling from the economic slowdown, the rate at which cities can afford to construct iconic buildings is lower and only wealthy states or states with access to big money can afford to embark on such projects.

The issue of loss of novelty is also a critical point to consider. Even prior to the economic decline, various architectural critics were of the view that the days of iconic buildings were numbered. This is because in order to make such buildings a tourist attraction, a lot of publicity generation is involved and this eventually leads to overexposure which with passage of time turns iconic buildings from the “next big thing” into “old hats”. Dubai is arguably one of the biggest tourist attractions but how many of these tourists are attracted primarily by the cities architectural jewels remains an important point. The city is a favorite shopping destination where everything can be bought and this nature of the city overshadows the architourism bit in terms of luring visitors to the city. Architourism is based on visiting iconic buildings and became a popular tourism concept beginning the late 90s but then again, considering the fact that these buildings are overexposed, is it possible to sustain people’s interest in such buildings?

How iconic buildings will be effective as branding tools considering the overexposure becomes another issue of concern (Al Maktoum, 2006). Many cities commissioned iconic buildings with the hope of emulating Bilbao but the fact is, when the same formula is used many times, market saturation occurs. Building iconic structures requires enrolling the services of world famous architects, with a reputation for producing architectural jewels elsewhere. When many different cities hire the same architects to design their iconic buildings, does it not create standardization rather than differentiation? Isn’t differentiation the essence of brand identification? In this regard, isn’t the Saadiyat Island project in Abu Dhabi for instance a hyped project that will not produce the anticipated architourism dollars?

Replicating the Bilbao effect is not a guarantee that a city will attain a global position like Bilbao did. Pursuing this strategy is easier when a city has a unique selling point but where a city simply implements a wide range of copycat schemes that worked in other cities, it is a lot more difficult. Architourism research has revealed that such venues fail due to their failure to consider their own links with local community and their heritage. One example of such failed projects is the Cardiff museum which was a replication of Tate Modern in London. The project failed because there was no enthusiasm for it among the locals. Regeneration projects are rushed as cities try to complete such projects quickly in order to benefit while the concept still holds relevance but in the process they fail to consider the infrastructure support and link to social context (Graham, 2001).

Architectural critics assert that iconic buildings are not only absurdly expensive to construct but also that their design is based on marketability (Klein, 2004). They are basically highly visible images that are set in urban landscapes with no sense of community, meaning or place. They capture the Zeitgest of media attention celebrity and brand obsession of this era and are therefore more of architectural manifestation of celebrity endorsement. Iconic buildings create a spectacle but fails to create a sense of authentic experience which brings us to the question, what next? Architecture does benefit tourism but the focus should be on “good architecture” rather than “expensive architecture”. The pool of star architects (starchitects) with the kind of appeal to make big budget cities seek their services in a bid to outdo other cities in terms of iconic structures is awfully small. There are however a lot of contemporary architects out there who are creating good work and it is perhaps a good idea to let such architects shine rather than overshadow good work with overhyped starchitect’s creations.

Architectural change vs. tourism

Communities are evaluating the role of tourism and architecture just as architecture is evaluating the place of the iconic. Principles in architecture are shifting and so are paradigms where a return to core values, helping people to live and work better, using architecture as an instrument of social change, densification and change making designs have taken a lot of importance. Tourism as a result is viewed in architectural circles as a bi-product which can economically benefit a place, but the iconic building scramble has been primarily focused on tourism generation hence overlooked the other core values. Only a select few cities have the access to the sort of money needed to procure such buildings and different regeneration strategies will have to be formulated. There will be a need to shift from the spectacular to more cultural and social aspects incorporating peoples’ lifestyle into regeneration projects.

Going forward, regeneration will move away from standardization and globalization into considering local culture and exploiting differences rather than seeking starchitects to design expensive buildings. An example of such architectural exploration is for instance turning a village into a hotel and luring visitors with the prospect of sharing local culture, hospitality and heritage. Refurbishing historical buildings and offering visitors the opportunity t stay in such buildings is also another way of using architecture in regeneration without the extravagance associated with contemporary architectural iconic buildings.

Do iconic buildings still have a place?

So, now that other regeneration concepts are being tried out, what happens to the iconic buildings already built? Will the shift in regeneration architecture bring an end to architourism and will destination marketing loose relevance? For how long will iconic buildings as tourism destinations endure? To answer these questions, it is important to point out that architectural pilgrimage is not new. Using stunning or spectacular buildings to attract visitors is not new either. The concept of wonders of the world although manmade has captured people’s imaginations for centuries (Elsheshtawy, 2008). In modern marketing, thinking of Sydney brings in mind the Opera House, just like thinking of Paris bring to mind the Eiffel tower and London brings to mind the Big ben. Existing Iconic buildings are therefore likely to be enduring images (Marcuse, 2009).

The examples of Sydney, Paris and London however have a lot more to offer than the mentioned attractions. Similarly, Dubai has much more to offer than the view of The Burj Khalifa. The longevity of iconic buildings built in isolation and which do not relate to a city and its community as a whole is questionable. The lack of an authentic experience, lack of cultural links and boredom due to global standardization is a major setback for such iconic buildings (Bagaeen, 2007).


Iconic buildings have been successful and effective in raising public awareness about places and also demonstrating the role of contemporary architecture in tourism. While raising iconic structures within urban environment should be encouraged as a way of generating economic productivity through urban tourism, such iconic structure developments should take into consideration culture, lifestyle and values of the locals so as to fit in and be able to achieve their full potential. This awareness must now be extended beyond the iconic. While there is still a place for spectacular iconic buildings, there is a need to enrich this through context. Contemporary architecture provides a lot of exciting possibilities and is not just about a pretty picture.

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