Notable cityscapes are always punctuated by built iconic landmarks. In fact, many cities’ visual identity is predicated on having such architectural icons. We tend to take their symbolic power for granted. However, turning an architectural structure into a socially meaningful performance is a complex task with manifold implications, some of which may not be intended.

Nowadays flagship buildings are purposefully constructed not only in metropolitan areas but also in small cities whose authorities deem them crucial for increasing recognition and inclusion in global cultural circuits. In order to achieve the desired resonance and its putative urban benefits, such projects are generously funded and commissioned to star architects. The goal is to endow a given city with an urban attraction capable of giving a distinctive local expression to a global trend, whereby the city’s profile and visitor-friendly infrastructure are taken to a new level. The case of Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry famously epitomizes this sociological issue, now widely referred to as the ’Bilbao Effect’. The question remains, however, whether the effect is generalizable, i.e. to what extent can this basic impact model be translated into social and economic benefits across time and space contexts.

We wish to critically develop the pertinent research agenda by inquiring in detail whether the specific effects observed in one location are to be expected in another too? We ask if urban strategies implemented in one middle size city can be directly grafted onto comparable ones elsewhere? To gauge and categorize the sociological implications of star architecture in concrete non-metropolitan settings, we conduct a series of studies of the three German-speaking cities in three countries, Wolfsburg (Germany), Graz (Austria) and Luzern (Switzerland), each of which has developed its own iconic building in the twenty first century. We combine qualitative methodologies of ethnography, interviewing, and media analysis to deepen our understanding of how new flagship architecture pans out in different urban realities

(fig: Phaeno, Wolfsburg, Richard Bartz,