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January 08, 2008

Cities and Icons

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Even though I've traveled over much of the United States, that travel took place over such a long span of time that I haven't been to some cities in 20, 30 or even 40 years. Over that much time, their skylines change; 60 years ago cities with 25+ story buildings were rare and now they are a lot more common. But the key thing is that those modern skyscrapers usually look pretty much alike, and so do the cities that contain them. That's why, when I see a photo of a city in, say, an advertisement, I often have no idea what place it is.

This isn't always the case, of course. Consider this photo that I took recently:


Most of you will instantly recognize the setting as Honolulu because the famous Diamond Head volcano cone is in the background. This picture was taken from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, hence the pink accents on the beach gear.

What you need to realize is that Diamond Head is iconic.

Unless a city has some sort of icon -- be it a building, the physical setting, whatever -- it will be nondescript, especially to people not familiar with it.

Here are some city photos for your consideration. How many cities do you recognize?


City "A"

City "B"

City "C"

City "D"

City "E"

City "F"

City "G"

City "H"

The cities are: A = Charlotte, NC; B = Rochester, NY; C = Columbus, OH; D = Kansas City, MO; E = Denver, CO; F = San Francisco, CA; G = New York City; and H = Seattle, WA.

I suppose most of you correctly guessed the last three cities -- San Francisco, New York and Seattle. San Francisco because of its setting and perhaps because of the pyramidal Transamerica building. The New York picture shows the famous Chrysler Building and Empire State Building, though the latter might be harder to recognize because many people aren't familiar with its night time lighting schemes. Seattle is known because of the Space Needle in the foreground, though a Needle-less photo that included Mt. Rainier in the background might have been equally useful for identification.

I haven't been in the other cities (except Denver) for decades and probably would have failed to identify any except perhaps Columbus (thanks to the pre-WW2 tower towards the center-left of the photo). How about you?

Actually, there's no truly important reason why a city has to be so distinctive that people from the other side of the country or even overseas can identity it instantly. Iconic status isn't a necessity for a nice lifestyle. Still, isn't there such a thing as icing on the cake?



posted by Donald at January 8, 2008


You left out the St. Louis Arch (very identifiable) and the Wrigley Building in Chicago---also iconic.

But...point taken, although I think your geographic myopism is showing---I don't think most people identify the space needle--or Mt. Rainier---very readily, unless they are from the western U.S.

Posted by: annette on January 8, 2008 10:01 AM

I like it when cities develop along distinctive lines, and I think one of the under recognized problems with orthodox modernism (INTERNATIONAL style and its decendants) and starachitecture (e.g., Gehry, Calatrava, etc.) is that they foster a certain sameness amongst cities and city icons. On the other hand, when you look at the other forms of modernism (e.g., Art Deco) -- forms of modernism which value ornament and the development of an architecture that springs from local conditions -- they seem to allow for and foster locally distinct versions of popular styles (e.g., Wrigley Building, Chicago Board of Trade, Playboy [nee Prudential?] Building, Marina City -- all distinctively "Chicago" (and not New York).

Also, I think it's interesting to note how many of the man-made city icons are actually products of the private sector: Hotel Coronado (San Diego); Hollywood sign, Watts Tower (Los Angeles); Transamerica Building, Ghiradelli Square, cable cars (originally?) (San Francisco); SPACE NEEDLE (Seattle) (a great, great example of a privately built icon); Wrigley Building, Trade Mart, Board of Trade, Playboy Building, Marina City, Sears Tower (Chicago); Wall St. skyline (pyramid), New York Stock Exchange, Woolworth Building, Flatiron Building, Metropolitan Life Tower, Macy's Herald Square, Empire State Building, Chrylser Building, Grand Central Terminal, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Waldorf-Astoria, Park Avenue, Plaza Hotel, Dakota, CPW skyline, Yankee Stadium (original); Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building (Brooklyn).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 8, 2008 10:31 AM

I could only identify the last three. Philadelphia has one of the most distinctive skylines of any city. I think that I'd recognize it immediately.

I'm surprised that Charlotte is that big. Columbus is a great place to visit. One of the hardest drinking towns in America. Not sure whether it's such a great place to live.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 8, 2008 11:03 AM

I second Benjamin's observations and opinions, and bow down before his erudition and knowledge too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 8, 2008 12:52 PM

The golden dome on the Capitol is pretty obvious in Denver's skyline. Anyone who has ever been there, or watched "Dynasty", would know that one straight away. And there are potentially notable 'iconic' landmarks in all of the pictures.

Part of the reason Rochester and Columbus aren't recognizable is that the cities themselves aren't particularly notable. If they were 'famous' cities (like NY or SF), their skylines would be known, even without cues. If the Transamerica building were in San Jose, no one would have heard of it - there are similar buildings scattered around the country, albeit mostly shorter than the Transamerica. A distance shot of New York is recognized, instantly, by most, if only because of its sheer mass of buildings. You only then start looking to pick out the Empire State Building or Chrysler building. (Even by New York standards, the rather non-descript Twin Towers were iconic and obvious on the skyline. These days you have to hunt down the Chrysler building in the mass of towers.) IF Rochester, KC, Columbus, etc. were as iconic as New York, SF, or Seattle, something in that picture (the waterfall in Rochester, the waterfront in Columbus, whatever) would be iconic. By contrast, LA's skyline is pretty recognizable from TV and movies, despite the utter lack of interesting buildings downtown.

Iconic buildings don't provide identity to cities. Iconic cities have interesting buildings become iconic. More people might recognize the rather boring Dallas skyline from 1979 than the one from today, because of the Dallas TV show, despite the rather obvious and unique Reunion Tower in the current one (it hadn't been built when Dallas was shot).

If you want a non-descript, unrecognizable skyline of a major city, look to Houston's skyline. The closest thing to an 'icon' in it is the highway that is sometimes in the foreground - the 'icon' in Houston (if Houston were 'famous' the way New York is) would be the stand-alone Williams Tower - a 901 ft monster which is several miles outside downtown, all by its lonesome towering over the Galleria shopping mall - or maybe the San Jacinto Monument southeast of town. Neither are remotely part of the 'skyline', but they would be instantly recognizable to people if Houston were as 'iconic' as New York.

Posted by: rvman on January 8, 2008 4:45 PM

1) Thanks MB -- but no need to bow down!

2) I'd like to add some names to the list of man-made city icons that are products of the private sector: Royal Hawaiian Hotel (Honolulu) ! ; Grauman's Chinese Theater, Capitol Records Building (Los Angeles); buildings with ornate cast-iron balconies (New Orleans); the Green Monster / Fenway Park (Boston); cast-iron buildings of SoHo (New York); Parachute Jump, Wonder Wheel (Coney Island, Brooklyn); Kentucky Downs grandstand (Louisville); Fontainbleau Hotel, etc. (Miami Beach).

3) It does seem to me that some of these photos may be unintentionally "slanted" so as to NOT show off the locality's distinctively iconic structures or places to their best advantage.

4) While I think it's true that the more newsworthy a place is, the more famous (and thus recognizable) its iconic structures will be, I don't think that newsworthy-ness endows a non-descript place with icons. Yes, with repeated viewings people might recognize the place more readily, just like they readily recognize non-distinctive buildings in their own neighborhood, but that doesn't make the buildings / structures iconic -- just familiar.

On the other hand, just because a building is not currently well known by the average (non-traveling) person, that doesn't mean it can't be iconic for those who are in the know, or that it can't become even more famous and iconic with increased exposure in the future. I wasn't familiar with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel before Donald mentioned it, but now that I am, it says "Honolulu" in a way that the non-descript modern buildings around it don't.

I do think, however, that large, rich cities, are more likely to build distinctive and iconic structures -- or at least they were prior to the popularity of orthodox modernism!

And I also think that distinctive iconic places are more likely to gain attention (e.g., be chosen for movie locations) and eventually become even more widely known. And, the more such iconic places a locality has, the more likely the place is to become even more famous -- a virtuous circle.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 8, 2008 9:14 PM

I grew up in the Columbus, Ohio area, so "the pre-WW2 tower towards the center-left of the photo" strikes me as pretty darned iconic. That's the LeVeque Tower, and certainly in the immediate Columbus area it was as much a symbol of the city as the Empire State Building is for NYC. Of course, much beyond Columbus, no one probably cared... Wikipedia has a good write-up on it under "Leveque_Tower". It's 47 stories tall and was completed in 1927. Unfortunately, the Depression along with the cost of the building bankrupted the insurance company that built it. Due to changes in ownership, it was known as the Leveque-Lincoln Tower during my time in area, but since 1977 it's just been the Leveque Tower. It was also the tallest building in Columbus until 1977 (and at one time it was the tallest building between New York and Chicago); now it's looking a little lost among more generic modern skyscrapers and no longer quite so much a distinctive icon.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 10, 2008 3:23 AM

Rochester has a waterfall? Neat. Spokane does, too, but I seriously doubt anyone who has not been there would recognize the place.

Denver has a building that has been described as a "cash register" but it is shot at the wrong angle in the photo above. (It's the brown building to the right; the other angle has a curved top.)

I agree that it isn't really necessary to identify cities where you've never been. Of course, now I want ot see deliberately misleading pictures, such as the one I saw once of my hometown Sacramento. It was after one of the flood years, so the gates on the two-mile-wide Yolo Bypass floodplain* had been opened. The photographer had shot the city from about thirty miles away using the most extreme telephoto lens I've ever seen, and the result was of a city with a huge lake at its foot and a snowy mountain range rising directly behind it. Mind you, the Sierras are a good ninety minute drive with clear traffic to get near the elevation of the peaks in that photo. Utterly gorgeous and totally misleading.

*The Army Corps of engineers put levees on the Sacramento River back in the nineteenth century, before they understood the importance of floodplains. So later work took farmland and created a sixty-mile-long and two-mile-wide artificial floodplain to be used in times of high water. There's wetlands and rice farms in the basin; farmers pay a reduced rent with the understanding that they'll lose their crops once or twice a decade.

Posted by: B. Durbin on January 10, 2008 10:22 PM

Denver does have one iconic building, the "cash register building" (Wells Fargo Center) is in your photo (the large black skyscraper on the right) but not in profile to see the unique top shape. Also we have a mini Flat Iron Building, the Brown Palace Hotel.

Posted by: T on January 12, 2008 8:13 PM

Playboy [nee Prudential?] Building

The building Playboy used as its world headquarters is the Palmolive Building

Posted by: Steven on January 17, 2008 5:51 AM

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