Iconic Architecture

by Andrew Wade

The Japanese retail company MUJI now sells its “City in a Bag” in several varieties - Barcelona, London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. The works of iconic architecture that were chosen to represent each city were simplified into their basic geometric volumes, occasionally with painted lines on them representing the rigid and monotonous repetition of window openings in the skyscrapers. The bags themselves are decorated with the name of the city and a simple skyline contour that selectively chooses the iconic buildings while eliminating the others.

The yearning of cities for iconic buildings designed by “starchitects” ends up both feeding, and resulting from, globalization and global competition. The cities that manage to accumulate these icons are the top players in the global scene. 4 of the 5 cities available at my local MUJI were ranked the top 4 global cities last year by Foreign Policy magazine. The issues related to iconic building are discussed in depth in the book “Iconic Building,” and this interview with its author Charles Jencks.

It’s interesting to note which buildings made the cut for inclusion into each set and which ones did not. With some cities, such as Barcelona, containing representations of buildings spanning vastly different styles (from La Sagrada Família to the Barcelona Pavilion), it makes one wonder what connects these disparate buildings into the unified city to which they belong. What does all of the urban fabric missing from these bags say about the character of these cities? What does the vernacular contribute to the “global city”?

Credits: Photo by Andrew Wade.


  1. That's a great question about the role of the vernacular in global cities. In so many cases the local fabric is destroyed to make room for new glass towers. I wonder if we'll eventually reach a saturation point with that kind of development. At least iconic buildings by starchitects preserve some differences between cities (even if they risk becoming luxury brands).

    The bags would be strange if globalization were to make every major city indistinguishable. It shouldn't happen though, right? Because everyone wants to stand out in some way. I just wish the way could be more like providing pleasant mixed-income neighborhoods and preserving local heritage. Well, that's not impossible.

  2. I was thinking to what extent "urban branding" is a new phenomenon related to globalization and global competition as you say, and to what extent cities have always tried to define themselves through iconic structures (Eiffel Tower, Acropolis). I think one difference is extent to which economic vs. political and private vs. public interests are driving the process. Also, it seems urban identities more "emerged" in the past out of a whole bundle of elements related to their history, culture, and physical form - and over time - whereas now there are attempts to quickly and consciously craft and market identities. Clearly an easy way to do this is iconic buildings by starchitects.

  3. Hi! I was wondering if this is still available in your local Muji store?