Buildings form an invariable component of the built environment. An  aspect that directly links all buildings to the image of the city, its premises consisting of living conditions, and social and economic well-being. However, depending on how well a building contributes to the contextual premise and how well it is perceived by the larger community, the repercussions of this relationship are frequently felt on a variety of levels.  It is up for dispute and discussion on how to categorize a structure as iconic in the first place. Monuments are portrayed similarly while iconic buildings are not. Regarding the design, aesthetics, or architectural style, they have an appeal of their own.

Architecture and iconicity

Iconic is the recognizable feature of a building. It can be defined in terms of its architectural significance, symbolic presence, or in certain cases architects associated with it. Iconic buildings stand as a catalyst, an exchangeable apparatus between architecture and the contextual habitat. Therefore such buildings possess unique opportunities to impact the surroundings and the community. They have the potential to completely revamp the image of a place, provide an identity, and boost its economic, social, and political outlook. The unpopular Bilbao city was an example of such a makeover. With the materialization of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank O Gehry, the city embraced the iconic building and created a new image for itself in terms of urban redevelopment, economic stability, and tourism, a phenomenon widely known as the ‘Bilbao effect’.

The Sociocultural Implications of Iconic Architecture - Sheet1
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao_©

Architecture shapes how we live our lives on a day-to-day basis. As a built form, architecture has always grappled with the power to shape societies, cultural identities, communities, and individuals. Arrangement or designing built forms within an environment reflects the social and cultural values embedded within. This understanding can be relegated to a wider context where culture finds expressions through distinct built forms. Sometimes a building demands to be built, stemming from socio- socio-cultural backdrop. This results in the creation of a cultural progenitor, existing as a symbolic identity for the adjoining community and by extension serves as an identity for the nation. The iconic structures that align a nation/s fabric often transition from their physical form to a  standing of symbolic representations that speak of its history, value, traditionalism, and aspirations. In India, the idea of representation through iconic buildings has played a central role in influencing local communities and collectively shaping national identity. For instance, the lotus temple in Delhi as an iconic building has become a symbol of unity and diversity. It serves as a sanctuary, a place of meditation and reflection for people of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Architecture as a cultural structure

Historic and vernacular architecture of a place is born out of the cultural and social identities of the community that occupies them. Architect Charles Correa characterized cultural identity as the trail left behind by civilization as it transitions through history. This identity consists of the sense of belonging marked by shared attributes. Throughout history, Indian architecture has functioned as a tangible embodiment of cultural identity. Buildings of monumental scale, public sites, or individual special characters are used to represent architecture and the environment. How architecture is presented has a great effect on how the context is perceived. The significance of architecture exceeds its physical form and identifies its functional features to become a catalyst for changes in urban and social contexts. As a safeguard for cultural distinctiveness, architecture stands as a steadfast guardian of cultural identity. This is achieved specifically by embracing local design principles, local knowledge systems, and workmanship, fostering a sense of belonging in the community.

Community identity and sense of place

Iconic buildings are categorized as landmarks that become a symbol of identity for the community. These buildings resonate with the local language by engaging, connecting, and providing a backdrop for the community to relate to and cultivate a sense of pride and ownership. On a basic level, architecture exists to cater to the most basic of needs and that is survival but in doing so, the physical form is often layered in stories, memories, and interpretations that point towards a narrative of its existence. Buildings shape human experience and not all buildings coined as iconic have the potential to do so.  The term iconic is a lot more subjective than it appears to be. Community identity, interspersed with cultural significance and a sense of place has a direct impact on the existence and labelling of a building as iconic. Expressing social and cultural identity through contemporary architecture is important in revving the cultural ecosystem of a place.  

The hearth of Indian culture is the consciousness of a place. The essence of a place is made up of the local communities, their characteristics, ideals, and beliefs. A building of stature always fragments down to its elements as a form of dialogue communicating with its context and contextuality. The architectural marvel and splendor of Hawa Mahal capture the very essence of the local community. This iconic building stands as a true testament reflecting and capturing the historical and architectural significance of the place Jaipur. It has become synonymous with the community and a symbol of Jaipur’s identity.

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Hawa Mahal_©Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Narratives of national identity

Architecture as a discipline has taken various stands in the past many years. They function as a catalyst, a medium, and a representation that goes beyond its construction and physical form. Buildings shape societies, define cultural narratives, and influence human behaviors. All iconic buildings need not be historic and all historic buildings are not iconic. When buildings have the power to shape communities, make an impact, and change the course of socio-economic growth, then they may identify as iconic. To have an impact is to be visible and loud.

The narratives that unfold beneath and beyond an iconic building are multifaceted. They often become symbols of cultural identity reflecting the ethos of the local community and their traditions. Preservation and continuity of heritage provide a tangible link to the past and maintain cultural continuity to move forward. National identity transcends national borders, and they become symbols of global identity. The Sydney Opera House has become a national and Global pride for Australia. They serve as cultural ambassadors that represent the face of the country.

The Sydney Opera House at night_©Lenny K Photography/Flickr

As societies evolve, communities grow and nations advance, iconic buildings stand their ground, as a steadfast reminder of our roots. They embody layers of stories and narratives involving people from diverse backgrounds, across borders of language, culture, and experience. Culture, identity, social significance, and the extraordinary prowess of human skills define the iconism of a building.

Reference list

Patterson, M. (2019). Architecture as performance art: evaluating ‘iconic power’ in the development of two museums. American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 8(2), pp.158–190. doi: (n.d.). What Makes a Building Iconic. [online] Available at:

‌UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2015). Socio-economic impacts of World Heritage Listing. [online] Available at:

‌ (n.d.). Examples Of Socio-Cultural Architecture | [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Aug. 2023].

‌Earth, H. (2017). The Case for Historic Buildings: Lessons on balancing human development and sustainability. [online] Highwire Earth. Available at:

‌Budach, G. (2018). Learning Around Iconic Buildings: Maps of Experience in the Making. Cultural studies and transdisciplinarity in education, pp.147–168. doi:

Sarda, S. (2023). Hawa Mahal: How India’s stunning ‘palace of winds’ was ahead of its time. [online] CNN. Available at:


Afnan Ashraf is an artist, architect and an educator. She is the principal architect at TwoPoints ArtLab and a founding member of Coearth Foundation. Afnan excels in developing brand identities, conceptual storylines, and website content. She emphasises on a research based approach fueled through collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.