The Future of Cultural Icons
What is a cultural icon?
This question led our most recent discussion for our Exchange of Ideas series, titled the Future of Cultural Icons, which sought to navigate the changing landscape of the cultural sector.
This landscape is seeing massive movement, from billion dollar renovations and expansions of new museums and performing art spaces to the creation and adaption of spaces that reimagine cities’ and communities’ traditional cultural spaces. And with this movement the definition of a cultural icon, and the way we interact with them, is becoming one that is less prescriptive and singular and instead more malleable. Whether buildings or institutions, temporary or permanent, a new wave of cultural icons is emerging and becoming more and more a part of the public realm.
To discuss the renaissance of cultural icons, we invited four panelists from both the private and public spheres of the planning and design of cultural spaces into our office – Andrew Burmeister (Assistant Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs), Andy Hamingson (Executive Director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), Gail Lord (Co-Founder and Co-President, Lord Cultural Resources), and Sharon Prince (President, Grace Farms). Together our panelists talked through the shifting meanings of cultural icons and the implications for those interacting with and experiencing them.
Bringing our attention to the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Andrew Burmeister said that some cultural spaces can have polarizing definitions and meanings. While indeed the stairs of the Met are iconic for many, Andrew posed that for others these grand stairs may actually be imposing. He highlighted that the way people view a cultural icon is often thought of when planning, but cannot always be understood until a space is complete and open. The High Line, for instance, was not necessarily intended to be an icon on its own, but was rather planned to be a walkway between museums (such as the Whitney) and galleries, a transitory space instead of a destination. However, the High Line has become one of the most iconic examples of urban renewal and public space in recent history, indeed a destination on its own.
“We don’t always know the meaning of places for people, and rarely do we ask what these spaces mean for the artists.”
She echoed that spaces can be iconic for some while oppressive for others. Yet she also spoke of a shift in the way cultural spaces are being built. As an example of a more recently completed cultural space that has achieved an open and inclusive form, she talked of the National September 11th Memorial, a permeable space open to the masses. It represents this larger move to more flexible spaces of interactivity as well as a move from thinking solely of the physical form of a space to the spirituality of a space and how that will dictate design.
Andy Hamingson mentioned that spaces such as St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater in Brooklyn that he led through their dramatic expansion and renovation into an old tobacco warehouse, as another example of a space designed to be “porous”, with the intention not only to provide an open theater for viewers, but also to give performers the freedom to allow the entire theater to be their stage. St. Ann’s has an intentionally open, borderless performance space, allowing for a free flowing form of theater to take place, dependent on who the performer is and what they may feel in the moment.
Sharon Prince said that Grace Farms, a community space set in a vast landscape in New Canaan, CT, was also built with this notion of a free (both literally and figuratively) and open access space. The idea of porosity was the inspiration that drove Grace Farms, a porosity that does not differentiate importance between spaces or those who visit. Creating a welcoming space to all visitors was of key importance for Grace Farms.
“The aspiration for Grace Farms was to create good in the world, which gave it form.”
Sharon Prince, Grace Farms
To achieve a truly open space Grace Farms has no front door and the designers, working closely with Sharon, gave the building a glass facade, grounding it in its rural setting. It is a space that taps into this new trend in cultural spaces where people come not just to observe but also to engage.