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What is an icon?
The impact that modern-day sporting venues have on people’s lives justifies them being described as iconic. By Rod Sheard from Populous
W hat is an icon? Those four letters seem to be everywhere these days – and have certainly crept into the everyday language of architectural design. They are often used in what seems to be quite an indiscriminate way but somehow we all understand what is being referred to – at least, we think we understand.
I have been in three vastly different countries in the past week and in each place those same four letters kept cropping up, so I thought I’d better check that I understood what was being said. The official explanation for icon is “representing something else of greater significance through literal or figurative meaning”. Thinking about that meaning, I can see how it applies to religion or even art, but can a 21st century building with all its compromises of budget, programme and expediency really ever justify the description? I am of the school of thought that firmly believes in architecture being all about improving people’s lives and I can see that sport architecture can perhaps take that a step further by helping to create moments in our lives that stay with us forever, helping to bond us as a society and even more widely as a people.
The 21st century sport stadium is a very special building. It is the only structure we design these days where so many of us gather and share a unique experience. Stadia can hold the population of an entire town in one building and can be the focus of attention for an entire nation; they’re able to generate huge revenues and can be used by city planners to rejuvenate areas of our post-industrial cities.
There is also no doubt that the events themselves tend to take on a ‘literal’ and a ‘figurative’ meaning way beyond what the ticket face suggests. So, I am coming around to the way of thinking that actually all sports buildings are icons in their own way; each venue contributing its own special experiences to its occupants – from those few thousand diehard supporters braving the cold and wet to watch mid-week football in some northern England town, to the billions who will tune into sunny London in late August 2012 when a large part of the world will have a shared experience. They can all produce moments we will never forget. So although the meaning and relevance of sport is different for all of us, we are each affected in a similar way as human beings – we get excited, depressed and finally elated (hopefully) all in the one short event.
We also experience as one the vastly different levels that sport provides, from the parental pride of seeing our child hit their first ball, to marvelling at Roger Federer’s grace and power on a grass court. These moments in sport mean nothing in any logical scientific context, but as humans they mean everything. So much of sport has a meaning that is literally and figuratively beyond what it appears on the surface and the architecture of sport is the facilitating medium, the vessel in which memories are made. So I think I understand now how very different cultures want to use the word icon. In fact, I think I will be using it a great deal more myself, at least as it applies to sport architecture.
• Rod Sheard is senior principal at Populous. His most recent projects include the design for Wembley Stadium, Emirates Stadium for Arsenal FC and Wimbledon AELTC
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