Elements Revisted

Icon Elements: a study on the contemporary icon and its parts

Nick LoCicero


Thesis-Prep Proposal


                    Contemporary architecture in the last decade has experienced drastic shifts in form, content, and stylistic concerns. Architectural design has changed in such a way that has left many confused as to what the current trends in architecture are. Until recently design values have shifted over decades and not years the trends shifting from Modernism to Post-Modernism, Deconstruction and Phenomenology. There have been many trends between them but the landscape of design has started to change faster than it ever has before. This has left many without knowing how to approach design, especially early on in their careers. If the aesthetics and contextual values are changing so rapidly, how does one begin to anticipate and incorporate these and develop something relevant?

                    The Project I am proposing, “Icon Elements: a study on the contemporary icon and its parts,” will systematically analyze contemporary design trends to gain an understanding of how to design in contemporary architecture. Architecture Schools historically focus on a single trend or unique style that allows the school to distinguish itself from any other, however, how does one begin to approach design when there is no longer a single distinct style or direction within the practice? I will demonstrate how one might approach design through cataloging architectural elements and use graphic analysis to understand the elements that make up particular styles, and how one might approach them.

                    The icon first applied to art and architecture in the early 1900s through the introduction of semiotics. Semiotics is a study of the signifier and the signified, where in the signifier is a direct correlation or implied correlation between a sign and its meaning. These signs can be represented in different ways. The sign as defined by Charles Saunders Pierce, can be broken down into three categories, the symbol the icon and the index. The symbol is an agreed upon meaning that implies a relationship to something else, such as the crucifix is a symbol for Christianity. The icon has a direct relationship between its representation and its meaning, such as a photograph of your face is an icon of you. The index is a pointer, where “A” points to “B”, such as paw prints in the sand are an index for an animal that has just passed through there. These symbols were identified and used until the 1980s when a realization that the semantic method was not necessarily the best device for finding meaning in architecture. The icon became a word taken on by the general public as well. Consumer culture began to use the term to define famous buildings, culturally significant buildings and more generally as building I like. It is through this lens that we will be looking at this shift in design styles. The movement away from semiotic culture and towards a consumer culture that defines architectural needs in its own terms.

                    Architecture is directly connected to economics and consumer culture  in more way than one. The basic approach to architecture requires a client, a site and an architect. The site in which the building is to be located is a commodity as is the service that the architect provides. These things vary in value due to the social context to where they are built, what style the building was designed in and the reputation of the architect. Stylistic concerns play a big part in this value of the design. A culturally and stylistically relevant home designed by a prominent architect in a place like Beverly Hills is worth more than a suburban home built by a developer in a community outside a city like Phoenix.  The Beverly Hills home is expected to be “designed better” because its client can afford “good design.” The value of home outside of Phoenix is lessened by its distance from the city and is designed to look like every other piece of architecture within the community where it is built. Architecture has become a commodity for those who can afford it.

                    Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown discuss the commodification of architecture in Learning from Las Vegas. They discuss how architecture uses its appearance to attract attention to itself. Two models are proposed the decorated shed, where in a “box” building is affixed with signage that signified its purpose. The other model is that of the Big Duck located in Flanders, NY. The duck is a building whose appearance has been “skinned” to look like a giant duck. Contemporary architecture has for the most part lost much of its signage and isn’t designed as a one-liner like the duck, however, it has become “skinned,” for the most part, to take on the appearance of the style that it is trying to become a part of. This style is what is considered in fashion for the time. The style can address any or many approaches to design from dealing with the ecological repercussions of the building through “sustainable design,” to the way that the building engages with the site, embracing or rejecting its context.      

                    The initial stage of research will approach the project from a semantic point of view. Looking at the elements of architecture and its general loss of meaning. This will give way to the emergence of consumer culture and the proliferation of rapidly changing style requirements. Using the basic elements of architecture as defined through a lens of semiotics for comparison between older styles of architecture and more contemporary notions. The focus on contemporary architecture will be within approximately the last six years the shift from Affect and Sensation towards a few new idealistic fields including Objects, Figure and Projection.   

                    The second stage of the project will consider how these elements can be applied to design. These elements will be culminate in either a singular architectural project or a series of design charrettes within the distinct styles discussed in the catalog.

                    The goal of the project is to better understand current trends through the analysis of architectural elements and outline the patterns found within emerging styles of architecture. The project will add to the existing scope of what is available on current architectural trends and serve as a reference point for students and peers to have a clear and concise over view of what the current landscape of design is in architecture.




Selected Annotated Bibliography  




Dash, Paul. "Mies, Venturi, Lyon - Studies in Semiotic Culture." Transition., no. 59 (1998): 34-39.

Article discussing the meaning in architecture and the lack of signs in modern architecture.

Eco, Umberto. "Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture." In The City and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics, edited by M. Gottdiener and Alexandros Ph. Lagopoulos, 56-85. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Article discussing the use of semiotics in architecture providing background research.

Eisenman, Peter. "Digital Scrambler: From Index to Codex." Perspecta 35,  (2004): 40-53.

Article arguing against using semiotics in architecture in favor of other systems for defining meaning.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Discussing Commodity Fetishism as it applies to postmodern architecture.

Lim, William S.W. . "Debunking the Icon-Myth." Majalah Arkitek 21, no. 1 (2009): 60-63.

Article arguing against consumerism in architecture and a return to cultural significance.

Rockmore, Tom. "Karl Marx: Capital." 3, 183-208, 2005.

Chapter one on commodities and the fetishism of commodity

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1972.

Consumer culture in architecture.





Glossary of Terms



Icon noun \ˈī-ˌkän\

A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something

Oxford Engligh Dictionary

A direct parallel to what it is referencing. A simplified drawing of a printer in a square is a print button.

Charles Saunders Pierce

Index noun \ˈin-ˌdeks\

Something used or serving to point out; a sign, token, or indication

Oxford Engligh Dictionary

The Index is a collection of pointers. The index is a pointer A leads to B, where B is an inherent or learned behavioral result.

Charles Saunders Pierce

Sign noun \ˈsīn\

Any object, action, event, pattern, etc., that conveys a meaning

Oxford Engligh Dictionary

Symbol noun \ˈsim-bəl\

A thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract

Oxford Engligh Dictionary

The symbol is an accepted language or visual cue that stands for something else

Charles Saunders Pierce