Colin Harding is fed up of architects with a god complex going on about iconic design. When it comes to the Olympics, thou shalt worship none but design and build

It could have been Julius Caesar who said of the Parthenon: “Icon, iconic, iconolatric”, but then Latin is all Greek to me. However, it was definitely Lord Rogers who said that, because it will be a design-and-build project, the Olympic stadium will be insufficiently “iconic”, whatever that means.

That comment has projected the word iconic into the lead in the Olympic spin marathon, challenging buzzwords such as “legacy”, “sustainability” and “overspend”.

The big question is: what is the true meaning of iconic? Rogers’ logic is that only design-led projects can be iconic and design-and-build ones are automatically “contra-iconic”.

So, the embarrassing Wembley stadium is clearly iconic, while Arsenal’s highly successful Emirates Stadium must be contra-iconic.

Zaha Hadid’s unsustainable aquatics centre is iconic, while the commercially developed media centre is contra-iconic. Logically, then, if the extravagant Scottish parliament is iconic, the stylish Welsh assembly must be contra-iconic.

But hang on a second, Taylor Woodrow’s design-and-build Welsh assembly is winning lots of prizes. And the architect was Lord Rogers himself – a high priest of iconolatry. Noted iconophiles don’t switch off their iconism just because they are working under the design-and-build ethos.

To me, the Welsh assembly is much more iconic and likeable than the Scottish parliament. And it was finished on time, within budget, without driving the subcontractors into insolvency or employing half the world’s construction lawyers.

In the fuss over whether the Olympic stadium should be design-and-build or design-led, we are witnessing the last stand of the God-architect

But let’s come back to the real meaning of iconic. My grandmother would have said that one person’s icon was somebody else’s carbuncle. The concise Oxford dictionary defines it as “following a conventional type”, from the Greek “eikonikos”, which is the antithesis of the design-led lobby’s objectives.

Realistically though, in our modern spinning electronic world, the true meaning is irrelevant – it’s just the impression it leaves that counts. The word iconic is no more than another weapon in the battle for the survival of the architect-led adversarial contract system. In the fuss over whether the Olympic stadium and the media centre should be design-and-build or design-led, we are witnessing the last stand of the God-architect.

Of course we need iconic structures to lift our spirits and proclaim our status, but our artistic enthusiasm must be tempered by the realities of practicality and cost, illustrated by the following construction costs:

  • Basic up to: £1,500/m²
  • Modest: £1,500-2,500/m²
  • Prestige: £2,500-5,000/m²
  • World class: £5,000-7,500/m²
  • Iconic: £13,000-15,000/m².
The £13,000/m² rate is the cost of the controlled iconicry of the Welsh assembly and the £15,000/m² rate is that of the alleged iconicry of the Scottish parliament a few years ago – that’s two or three times the cost of a world-class structure. The government and the Olympic Delivery Authority cannot risk this level of iconic escalation on any of their projects. Design-and-build construction is the only way for clients to have certainty over the cost of design and therefore the whole project.

In any case, do we really need to be keeping up with the iconic Joneses of Athens, whose stadium is now redundant, or of Beijing, where the world’s biggest steel bird’s nest will hit new heights of unsustainability?

Our talented iconophile architects should be concentrating on wow-factor sporting venues that create affordable iconism rather than extravagant notoriety. There’s no doubt that the cult of iconolatry is the main reason why UK construction costs are among the highest in the world.

All this lexicography has made me realise that I am a true iconoclast – and that, like iconolatry, is in the dictionary. Season’s greetings and an iconoclastic new year to you all.