Urban clickbait? Why ‘iconic architecture’ is all the rage again

Weird and wonderful buildings are springing up in China and elsewhere, driven by cities’ desire to make a mark in a world full of eye-popping imagery

An image opens on my screen: a 2,000-seat theatre on the edge lands of Guangzhou, a territory of raw new towers and just-departed rural ghosts, designed to look like a swirl of red silk, imprinted with “tattoos” of phoenixes, cranes and other ornithology. It refers, goes the explanatory text, to Guangzhou’s historic role as “the birthplace of the silk road on the sea”. It is a declaration of something where there was formerly nothing, a three-dimensional advertisement for the colossal Sunac Wanda cultural tourism city of which it is part. I peer at the image – is it virtual or real? It’s real.

It enters a mental folder already bulging with such projects as a football stadium – reportedly the largest in the world – under construction in the same city in the shape of a giant lotus flower. Also the completed Zendai Himalayas centre in Nanjing, a 560,000 sq metre mixed-use development shaped like a mountain range, which is said to adapt “the traditional Chinese shanshui ethos of spiritual harmony between nature and humanity to the modern urban environment”. Other prodigies demand attention: a pair of super-tall skyscrapers in Shenzhen whose conjoined nether regions melt into tree-filled terraces and undulant glass, a quartet of twisting aluminium-clad towers in Qatar and apartment towers in Vancouver propped like tulip heads on narrow stalks.

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Urban clickbait? Why ‘iconic architecture’ is all the rage again