Understanding the distinction between forms of communication – especially the narrative and iconic – is important. Narrative communication is concerned with creating arguments and it works analytically; it takes time and promotes reflection and seeks to create understanding over time. Its ‘band width’ is wide, its scope is exploratory and linked to critical thinking. It is ‘low density’ in the sense of building understanding piece by piece and step by step. There is no instant ‘eureka’ moment. It is not high impact and may have the advantage that the understanding that has come about slowly seeps into consciousness.
Iconic communication by contrast has a narrow ‘band width’ and highly focused purpose. It is ‘high density’ because it seeks to ‘squash meaning’ into a tight time-frame, creating high impact by encouraging us to grasp a symbolic message or action immediately – because what is being projected feels significant. Typical examples of building-based iconic communication are the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House and Guggenheim Bilbao. The Eiffel Tower, built for the 1851 World Fair, expressed the hope, grandeur, and courage of the emerging industrial age; the Opera House, a sense of coming-of-age and new kind of boldness for the antipodes; Bilbao, the dramatic statement of a city that wanted to signal its re-emergence in the post-industrial world. Communicating iconically with buildings is relatively easy, it is more difficult to communicate a concept.
Communicating a concept
New Zealand’s national museum – Te Papa does this well. The name itself translates as ‘Our place’ and resonates with symbolic meaning, behind which lies a powerful expression of the bi-cultural nature of the country ‘recognizing the mana (authority) and significance of each of the two mainstreams of traditions and cultural heritage – Maoris and Pakehas – so providing the means for each to contribute to the nation’s identity’. This sensibility is built, in part, into the internal physical fabric as the outside is quite ordinary. A long, noble, reflection-inducing staircase proceeds past outward-looking bays towards the top, where a dramatic promontory projects us out towards the drama of sea and sky, before we reach the marae atea (the traditional Maori meeting place) which is a symbolic home for all New Zealanders. This requires little explanation and is instinctively understood.
The same can be said of the Brisbane Powerhouse and the symbolic resonance of the transformation – from electric power generation – to generation of powerful creative activity has deep cultural meaning for the people of Brisbane. The decision at the time to create the first directly elected mayor for London had huge iconic quality. The idea of a ‘mayor’ for Londoners symbolised not just the creation of a leader committed to the city, but a break with tradition and a new start. The idea of zero tolerance initiated in New York to combat crime is equally iconic. Everybody knows immediately the power of the word ‘zero’. It is a packed phrase and people know what it means and what is expected without complex explanations: linked to the word ‘tolerance’ it provided psychological comfort.
Identifying the iconic trigger – whether a building, a name, a position or a word like zero – is the most difficult aspect as communication needs to relate to the place, its traditions and identity. In an age where attention spans are at a premium, identifying projects that within them embody principled, fresh ideas yet can be communicated iconically is the challenge of the creative city.
At their best, cultural institutions like museums, galleries or theatres can communicate iconically, as can a series of small projects if connected together to express something about a bigger story or the bigger picture. For example one of the most imaginative, and successful, initiatives in Rotterdam’s European City of Culture celebrations in 2001 was ‘Preken voor Andermans Parochie’, (preaching in another man’s parish) which involved 52 of the city’s religious communities. Each week, a different church, temple or mosque hosted a preacher from a different faith, while a number of larger-scale events, involving theologians, artists, politicians and philosophers connected these local exchanges with international dialogue. This initiative has been such a positive experience that the city’s faith communities decided, late last year, that they would continue to pursue it after the end of Rotterdam 2001.