Open mike To say you’re going to produce an iconic building is an act of hubris, a confession of illiteracy and a good indication that you don’t really understand design.

Maybe it’s because I’m a grumpy old architect, but there are some things that really get my goat. One is the misuse and overuse of the term “icon”.

When is an icon not an icon? Well, one thing is for sure. It is a status that is achieved retrospectively and, therefore, cannot be applied before the subject has taken on the necessary trappings of an icon. By definition, an icon represents or symbolises something.

There is also a (valid) debate about the need for an item to have been around for a while before being accepted as an icon – rather like someone being made a saint. This debate is uppermost with projects produced by celebrity architects, where perhaps the scrutiny should be on the criteria for the definition of “celebrity” before considering the iconic part. Granted, there is no minimum period that has to be undergone, as demonstrated by the iPod. But it is pretentious to announce that an architect is in the process of designing an icon, as it’s not in the automatic gift of the creator or sponsor to define it as such.

The term icon originally referred to a religious painting, but nowadays it can be applied to everything from individuals to gadgets. Its meaning, however, still infers that the subject holds symbolic value for the viewer and this invariably means a requisite portion of the general public. I say requisite, as it is clear that a global icon should symbolise something to a global audience. Likewise, a national icon to a national audience, a sporting icon to a sporting audience and so on.

In terms of architecture, these same rules should apply. Iconic status can be conferred only after a building has been built and shown to symbolise something to a wide audience. Considering, therefore, the “retrospective” nature of icon status, it is wrong for architects, clients or professional bodies to confer the term on designs not yet created. A classic example of this misuse is: “A competition to design an iconic bridge …” It is laudable that people should aspire to design or be a patron of an icon but, as stated before, such recognition is not in their gift.

So why not use more deliverable terms to define a design aspiration, such as a “landmark” bridge or building? Landmark buildings are a necessary part of any urban fabric. They provide a reference point and help with context and direction. Historically, they would have been castles or forts.

Let’s call a spade a spade, a landmark a landmark, a hero a hero. But let’s allow the world’s icons to be just that

Over time, the need for such buildings diminished and other landmark buildings appeared. These were still to do with power or authority and ranged from palaces and country houses through to parliament buildings and civic halls.

Today’s landmark buildings, such as railway stations and airports, reflect our increasingly mobile population. However, these buildings have a meaning and a purpose. It is perfectly acceptable to plan a landmark building, bearing in mind that “landmark” doesn’t automatically equal “icon”.

The word has become commonplace and its meaning devalued. There is hardly a newspaper or magazine that fails to refer to an icon in each edition. Often, the term or adjective which should be applied is symbol or landmark or, if it is a person, a hero or idol.

As for the word “iconic”, its use is even more meaningless, since it translates “like an icon”. If an icon represents or symbolises something, then the word “iconic” means “like a likeness”! It has as much meaning as the saying, “It’s not an optical illusion, it just looks like one.”

Let’s call a spade a spade, a landmark a landmark, a hero a hero, but let’s allow the world’s icons to be just that and not devalue the term by applying the word to any subject that takes our fancy, in the hope that it will elevate it to said status.