If I say “Montreal” what image comes to your mind?
What do the Eiffel Tower, the US Capitol, Big Ben, the Acropolis, the Forbidden City, Christ the Redeemer, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chateau Frontenac, the Sydney Opera House, the CN Tower, St-Basil’s Cathedral, Hagia Sophia, St-Peter’s Basilica, the Petronas Towers, and even the Hollywood Sign have in common?
They represent architectural icons that form a major part of their home city’s identity, something that Montreal clearly does not have.
To get a proper icon, two conditions are absolutely required (1) it has to be architecturally unique and (2) it has to be either visible from the city core or located in a centralized location. Other redeeming factors include (3) a close association with a major geographical feature, (4) a high symbolic/historical value and (5) the willingness of its host city to use it for its own marketing.
Building architectural icons is a challenge, for instance architectural originality cannot please everyone, that’s why it’s original. The other significant factor is cost, while there will always be hungry people in the streets, the benefits of an appropriate icon are harder to quantify. How to you precisely measure its impact on tourism or even something as theoretical as increased civic pride?
While Montreal has a lot of worthy geographical and architectural landmarks none of these really qualify as an icon that would be recognized the world’s over. The closest thing that we have is the Olympic Stadium but it fails miserably when it comes to location. Other candidates include the St-Joseph Oratory and the cross on Mont Royal but they don’t have that “visual punch” that would make them instantly recognizable.
In fact, the one building that could have made it is the Biosphere. It is indeed very original, visible from afar, centrally located, closely associated with the St-Laurence River and it was built during an important period in our history. Unfortunately its problem is one of marketing. As my wife aptly commented “there is nothing to do there”. That may not be entirely accurate but its current role as an environment museum simply isn’t cutting it.
[update] Metroblogging Kuala Lumpur argues that residents and non-residents often have a different view of what exactly constitutes an icon.