Iconoclasm in the 21st Century

– von Isozaki, Arata

isoz_aIn the beginning of this century two sets of enormous structures were destroyed: the great Buddhas carved into a rock wall in Bamiyan and the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The two incidents can be understood as iconoclastic gestures. The architect Arata Isozaki on icons and icononclasm in the 21st century.

An icon does not necessarily have to be a real image; it can be virtual. After all, an icon is basically a virtual body made perceptible by the imagination. I believe that the concept of icon will be a key to deciphering situations that arise in the new century.

The word \”icon\” is derived from the Greek word meaning likeness or image. Digitalization by the media requires icons. Everyone recognizes that today politics, economies, cities, arts and wars are all managed or practiced through the media. The media can only communicate icons. Words and images are first analyzed into bits and then transmitted; those bits are then reassembled into icons and received. Those icons are selectively retained in memory. Naturally, the clearest and most powerful icons are chosen. The great Buddhas in Bamiyan were religious symbols. The WTC was emblematic of the power of economic activity. They obviously meant different things. However, they were both notable for their colossal size. They projected an overwhelming presence to all. There was nothing comparable to them. Images of them were therefore in wide circulation in the media. The images of their destruction were therefore quite shocking.

Icons in history have been alternately destroyed and propagated, abhorred and admired. Ikons were created in great numbers in the Byzantine period. They were objects of worship depicting sacred figures such as Christ and the Virgin Mary. The belief that they constitute idolatry led to iconoclasm. Iconoclastic movements also occurred during the Reformation. Protestants destroyed images of the crucifixion that were objects of worship. Even churches and monasteries were destroyed during the French Revolution.

Iconoclasts broadened their attack. They began with (two-dimensional) icons, and then expanded their targets to include (three-dimensional) sculpture and (architectural) structures. The fact that lovers of icons were increasing in number may account for such repeated attacks. The existence of abbhorence can give birth to admiration. Icons proliferate endlessly. Int the twentieth century, targets at last came to include things on a conceptual level: the ornaments that made architecture artlike and the institutions that sustained art. Ornament was rejected as a crime (Adolf Loos); painting, which had been about portrayal, was reduced to abstraction (Kasimir Malevich); a ready-made toilet was exhibited as a sacred object (Marcel Duchamp); and the house was called a machine for living in (Le Corbusier). The targets of these artistic acts of destruction were old works of art that had themselves become icons and the social system that supported them.

To put it another way, the modern art movement of the twentieth century can be said to have begun as iconoclasm. Modern architecture, which had dissolved traditional forms and had made a fresh start from \”zero degree of architecture\”, had as its objective a universal space (Mies van der Rohe) that could be put to any use, and that objective, achieved through the capitalist economic principles of efficiency, mass production and repetition, was in fact exemplified by the WTC in the Wall Street district, with its high-speed, two-story elevators, colum-free office spaces of uniform depth and tubelike cage structure. (The fact that nothing remained standing after the towers\’ destruction show how thoroughly the structure had been stripped of all extraneous elements; there was absolutely no redundancy). Although all these features may have been the result of a thorough pursuit of efficiency, the fact that the towers were two absolutely expressionless boxes shows they were the product of past iconoclasm. However, they in turn came to be targeted. A product of iconoclasm itself came to be identified as another icon.

This historical irony gives us insight into the nature of icons. Confronted by an icon, we are torn between a desire to destroy it and admiration for it. Those two different impulses have been at work alternately throughout history. They have produced both the potlatch and inhumane behaviour. What is noteworthy is the fact that the actions in question concerned icons propagated at great speed by the media.

(Auszug aus Isozaki, Arata: The Road Not Taken, in: GA Document Special Issue 77/2004, Arata Isozaki, S.8-10)

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