Leslie Sklair: The Icon Project

Hong Kong Iconic Cityscape (Michele Nastasi)

The Icon Project and Capitalist Globalization


Leslie Sklair

London School of Economics



Never before in the history of human society has the capacity to produce and deliver goods and services been so efficient and so enormous, thanks to the electronic revolution that started in the 1960s and the global logistics revolution made possible by the advent of the shipping container. And, paradoxically, never before in the history of human society have so many people wanted goods and services that they cannot afford to buy, largely due to the absolute increases in human populations and the relative ease of communications brought about, again, by the electronic revolution. The results are class polarization and ecological unsustainability, fatal contradictions to the promises of the capitalist system. These problems are disguised by the spectacular architecture that now spans most regions of the world, from the great cities of the Global North, to the expanding megacities of the Global South, and the artificial urbanism of the oil states of the Arabian Gulf. Shopping malls, modern art museums, ever-higher skyscrapers, and urban megaprojects constitute what I conceptualize as the triumphal ‘Icon Project’ of global capitalism. Icons emerge at the meeting point of power, meaning, aesthetics, and taste where the power of the TCC, the meanings produced by its ideologues, and the aesthetics produced by architects create the condition in which the Icon Project thrives.

Iconic architecture as marketing tool  for an Executive MBA program by business schools in three global cities,

Iconic architecture as marketing tool for an Executive MBA program by business schools in three global cities.

One of the consequences of capitalist globalization is a transformation in the social production, marketing, and reception of iconic architecture.  This process is largely driven by those who own and control most of the valuable land and other resources all over the world, conceptualized here as the transnational capitalist class (TCC). This class is organized in four overlapping fractions – corporate, political, professional, and consumerist. In most societies the TCC has the lion’s share of economic resources, political influence, and mass media attention and support.  My new book – The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) – focuses on how the transnational capitalist class uses architecture in its own commercial interests. Capitalist hegemony, the everyday expression of the power of the dominant class, is made visible by the creation of iconic buildings, spaces, urban megaprojects, sometimes whole cities. My thesis, in a nutshell, is that the transnational capitalist class mobilizes two distinct but related forms of iconic architecture – unique icons (buildings recognized as works of art in their own right) and successful typical icons (buildings copying elements of unique icons) – to promote their ideological message, the culture-ideology of consumerism.  The culture-ideology of consumerism promotes the view that the true meaning of life is to be found in our possessions and is the foundation of the capitalist dogma of limitless material growth. Shopping malls, cultural spaces, airports, and gleaming megatowers all over the world make capitalist hegemony visible, tangible, and spectacular – promoting an endless desire for success in terms of the shiny façade of consumer culture. The huge literature on globalization and global cities has so far failed to come to grips with the social production of iconic architecture and its central role in globalizing cities (namely cities aspiring to global status). With more and more people living in cities all over the world, the Icon Project is an important weapon in the struggle to create and solidify capitalist hegemony, to reinforce transnational capitalist control of where we live, what we consume, and how we think.

Medley of urban and global icons: T-shirts for walking city Boosterim.

Medley of urban and global icons: T-shirts for walking city Boosterim.

I define iconic in terms of fame and symbolic/aesthetic significance. The more successfully a building can convey consumer friendly meanings and consumer friendly design, ideally combining the comfortable with the spectacular, the more value it will have in the market. For example, the Sydney Opera House, often described as the first global architectural icon, initially provoked a storm of protest against its cost and unusual shape. However, a successful marketing campaign created a high measure of popularity and esteem, at home and abroad. Originally commissioned to boost tourism and Australia’s reputation on the world stage it was relentlessly promoted with these aims in mind. The Opera House has become a significant consumerist space in Sydney and tourist destination globally. It is to Sydney and Australia what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and France, an integral part of the brand. This suggests that the more famous a building is the greater will be its commercial potential.  And what could be more famous than an ‘icon’?

Manufacturing iconicity: This way for architect Frank Gehry’s latest icon (Metro Station, Paris).

Manufacturing iconicity: This way for architect Frank Gehry’s latest icon (Metro Station, Paris).

The theoretical framework of the book draws on two of my previous publications: Globalization: Capitalism and Its Alternatives (OUP 2002) and The Transnational Capitalist Class (Blackwell 2001). My focus is on how capitalist globalization is produced and represented all over the world, especially in globalizing cities. The research question underlying the book is: how does the transnational capitalist class inscribe its own interests in the built environment and, in particular, in what has come to be known as iconic architecture? This question is approached through two inter-related investigations: (a) how the architecture industry organizes the social production and marketing of iconic architecture, and (b) how the processes of capitalist globalization since the second half of the 20th century have evolved into a complex system in which capitalist corporations increasingly dominate the built environment and promote the trend towards globalizing, consumerist cities. This results in the virtual privatisation of public space through a process of creating privileged publics, notably people with money to spend, for new consumerist spaces.

Leveraging architectural iconicity: Visa references Esplanade cultural centre which references durian, a local fruit in Singapore.

The production and representation of architectural icons in the pre-global era (roughly before the 1960s) were mainly driven by those who controlled state and/or religious institutions, however the dominant forms of architectural iconicity for the global era are increasingly driven by those who own and control the transnational corporations, their local affiliates, and their allies in government, the professions, and the media. Historically, in most societies, religious authorities dominated the first era of architectural icons, states dominated the second era, and the present era is dominated by the transnational capitalist class. Iconic architecture has always been a resource in struggles for meaning and, by implication, for power and profits. Therefore, to explain how iconic architecture works for capitalist globalization we must ask questions about meaning and power. Temples, cathedrals, and mosques become famous to the faithful, and their aesthetics convey visions of the gods and the enigmas of the human condition on which all religions rest. Palaces, government buildings, and monuments become famous to citizens, and their aesthetics convey the power and authority of empires and states and the hierarchies on which all forms of class society rest. Shopping malls, corporate headquarters, museums, performance spaces, sports stadia, transportation hubs, and gleaming megatowers become famous to everyone through the mass media. The aesthetics of these buildings convey the message that the true meaning of life is in the culture-ideology of consumerism, the fuel that drives the global capitalist machine and provides the profits for those who own and control the transnational corporations. Whereas the iconic architectures of the first two eras (religious and state domination) are often marked with the symbols of the dominating elites, sometimes in combination, the icons of capitalist globalization are more varied in style, a consequence of the corporate capture of the modernist aesthetic and its offshoots. Glass, shiny metals, and spectacular shapes have been mobilized to convey messages of transparency, democracy, and consumer-friendliness in almost all building types. The electronic revolution that made capitalist globalization possible also makes new forms of iconic architecture possible.

Architects and urban designers would work as creatively to provide a built environment fit for an alternative non-capitalist globalization as they currently do to satisfy the interests of the transnational capitalist class. I ask questions about the role that architects and urbanists might play in creating alternative non-capitalist and non-consumerist forms of human settlements, including small scale communities or large cities for those who want to live in them, and forms (some still to be invented) between these extremes. These large transformations are not possible within the framework of capitalist globalization, but I argue that there is still scope for utopian thinking and experimentation that might encourage change. My view is that while it is absurd to expect architects and urbanists to design their (and our) way out of capitalist globalization and its many dysfunctions and contradictions, the emancipatory potential of successful, radical, anti-capitalist examples should never be under-estimated. While, in itself, this is not an architectural or design problem, it does have architectural and design implications. Though they are not yet entirely mainstream, there are many imaginative schemes to pedestrianize cities, to discourage the use of private cars, and to deal with the crisis of affordable decent housing in rich as well as poor countries. However, as long as capitalist globalization provides the framework for these initiatives they will always remain marginal.




Sklair-portraitLeslie Sklair is emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. Among his major works are: Sociology of Progress (1970), Organized Knowledge: Sociological View of Science and Technology (1973), Sociology of the Global System (1991/1995) Globalization: Capitalism and Its Alternatives (2001), The Transnational Capitalist Class (2002). His latest book The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. https://www.lse.ac.uk/sociology/whoswho/academic/sklair.aspx


Banner Image: Hong Kong skyline at night, by Michele Nastasi. © Michele Nastasi https://www.michelenastasi.com


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