We would be hard-pressed to find out when and where the adjective “iconic” was used for the first time in connection with architecture. Charles Jencks attempted to introduce it to serious academic debate in 2005 when he published his book titled The Iconic Building1 . In the aforementioned publication he describes the iconic building as a new architectural species, closely linked to economic prosperity and branding. We will not find therein a clear definition of the iconic building, but we can conclude that it is a structure that possesses a distinctly sculptural or extravagant shape, is unique and photogenic, and therefore easily identifiable. It is a kind of celebrity personage among buildings. The iconic building – or its image – is easily disseminated by the media, and its virtual presence is highly suggestive. It is the kind of architecture which, in its form, is reminiscent of something concrete, which awakens associations, acts subliminally, and becomes a subject of projections, for it allows everyone and anyone to put their mental content and meaning into it. If there is a building in the Czech Republic that could be described as iconic due to its popularity and media coverage, it is most certainly the Dancing House. However – and there is no doubt about it – it was not designed as a fashionable icon. Quite the contrary. The iconic quality of Frank Gehry’s architecture is a side effect of his creative process, which has made him popular with investors and the public. Its source and power of impact are deeper than the significance of the image itself.
The history of how the Dancing House came into being has been repeatedly told, and lengthy monographs have been devoted to it.2 So briefly: in the centre of Prague, in a prestigious location, at the intersection between a busy street and a waterfront with elegant tenement houses from the turn of the twentieth century, a plot of land became available in the late 1980s. The corner house which was destroyed by bombs during World War II had not been replaced with a new building to that day. Living in the house next door was the dissident Václav Havel, and one of his neighbours was the architect Vlado Milunić. Together they began to make plans to set up a “house full of culture”3 , in that very location, a building that would hold a bookshop, various publishing houses, and a small theatre.
At the beginning of 1990, Milunić drafted sketches of a tenement house, which in the grotesque erotic allegory depicted the difficulties resulting from the newly acquired freedom. He then began to work on the design of a tenement building whose towering shape with a domed tower no longer showed any figurative references, but – within the rather restrained Czech context – was still eccentric enough to “reflect the dramatic power of the era of its inception.”4 The turning point came when the vacant plot was acquired by a Dutch investment company and, in 1992, Frank Gehry joined the project. Over the next two years, a design for the house emerged, evidently demonstrating Gehry’s characteristic style, although the original concept of Milunić was not completely lost in it. Due to the location of the plot – on the waterfront, clearly visible from the Hradčany – and also due to Frank Gehry’s reputation as a star in the world of architecture, the project found itself in the spotlight of both professional circles and the general public, and it sparked many disputes and controversies.
The critics accused the Dancing House of superficiality, censuring its creators for seeking attention at all costs. Michal Kohout argued in somewhat more depth, based on the symbolic role of architecture in the representation of social values: in his opinion, the uniqueness would be acceptable in the case of an important public building, but not a private office building. As a result, he accused the building of transgressing the city’s regulations – the buildings’ alignment and the height of the cornice – as he explained in his article titled “dancing outside the dancefloor.”5 Among those who defended the Dancing House during the public debate at the time – which, in retrospect, merits admiration – was Rostislav Švácha, later the creator of the popular legend of Czech solemnity. By responding to Michal Kohout, he defended the right of exceptional buildings to transgress the rules which were in force at a given time, and he presented a long list of Prague’s important monuments of modern architecture that would never have come into being if the proposed designs were always judged so severely. He mentions, among other buildings, the Cubist house under the Black Madonna, designed by Gočár. He goes on to suggest that Gehry and Milunić were criticized not so much for falling out of the building alignment but for their “jumping out of the Czech moralism of restrained, severe, matter-of-fact and ascetic architecture” that is characterized by “the aversion to all creative accomplishments”, which “refuse to limit themselves to a simple description of functions, and defy conventional understanding of purposeful utility.”6 Švácha hit the bullseye. A reference framework for Gehry’s approach was lacking, either in the local intellectual debate, where the critique of modernist architectural design on a purely functional basis had never (so far) happened, or in everyday surroundings, marked by the poverty of real socialism with all its false egalitarianism. Frank Gehry found in California in the 1980s a peculiar way out of the crisis of modernism; albeit in harmony with his own nature; he decided to rely on deeper layers of the psyche than mere rational thinking – he turned to intuition and sensory reception. He raised architecture from the function of a simple box, designated to carry out a task, and led it out of the abstract space of rationality into the chaos of human life with all that belongs therein. The association of Gehry’s architecture with sculpture – as a free expression of human creativity – was correctly read in the Czech Republic, and yet it inspired aversion because it was perceived as a non-serious game that should not belong in that domain.
At the time of the construction of the Dancing House, very few people understood just how much Gehry wanted the building to be a “good neighbour.”7 Gehry indeed works rather like a sculptor, starting from the whole and then working his way to the inside; his method of work is very specific. First, he considers what a building should look like, how it should be shaped within its location – in this phase he works with sketches and paper models – then he modifies the shape to suit the specific requirements of the stated program. Gehry’s contextuality is not pictorial, nor is it in the foreground, in the sense that he does not try to imitate the neighbouring buildings. In the Californian “neighbourhood mix”, Gehry has learned to actively create context, to give a place its character, to conduct dialogue with the people about the place, through architecture. In Prague, the sensibility of his approach is apparent – we can see with what sensitivity the building fits into the place, helps to emphasize the corner of the street, rounds with its elegant curve the turn of the busy street before the latter enters the bridge, and at the same time signals that the line of buildings gradually decreases, that it ends and pauses there – to make way for free space, overlooking the river. The vertical corner of the building, with a double tower, corresponds to the tendency of Prague architecture and the topography of the city’s nucleus, namely a dynamic balance of power, in which “practically every old building is both weighing down towards the ground, and moving upwards,” as noted by Christian Norberg-Schulz.8 The corrugated façade with protruding window frames makes a reference – albeit in a modified, contemporary form – to horizontal divisions in stucco decorations on the façades of the neighbouring buildings. Culminating in the fabric of the Dancing House is the entire frontline of the townhouses on the Vltava river, in a movement following the direction of its flow towards the centre of the city. Frank Gehry himself often spoke about his being inspired by the architecture of Prague in connection with the Dancing House, and about the unique location of the riverfront building, and stated that he would not have built such a structure in Los Angeles.9 Frank Gehry’s architecture should be approached without any preconceptions, prejudices, but with curiosity and openness – we might say, like a child would approach it. If we wanted to assume the role of an intellectual, an academic, then we could interpret Gehry’s work as a practical manifestation of what Jorge Otero-Pailos described in his architectural theory as “phenomenal revolution.” This is what Otero-Pailos has to say about the protagonists of this movement: “The awareness of the history of modernism has led them, paradoxically, to the quest for the ahistorical constant, which lies at the foundation of all modern architectural expressions. Independently of one another, they all came to the conclusion that this supra-temporal constant is a sensory experience. […] All architecture that was ever created was organized according to the elementary language of basic bodily sensations / feelings”.10 And the architecture constructed in this manner is indeed far from being a mere image, an icon.
Translation from Polish: Dorota Wąsik