This week, the release of images of Amazon’s new HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, provoked a rare event: architecture briefly lit up social media. An ambitious spiral, the building was greeted with a cascade of tweets comparing it to the turd (or, in the US, poop) emoji. For others, it suggested a screw, a reminder of what some feel Amazon has being doing to businesses and employees worldwide.

None seemed to pick up on suggestions by architects NBBJ that it was inspired by the Milky Way, a nautilus or a walk through the Blue Ridge Mountains, even if it is pictured with green fluff cascading down its ramps.

Perhaps they were inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous image of the Tower of Babel. But that was a myth about hubris and the destruction of a golden age in which all people could communicate unencumbered by language barriers. Unless that is precisely the point: is this a brilliant satire on the pride before the fall?

I doubt it. The spiral, or poop-shape, has become a contemporary plague, ravaging cities, despoiling skylines and reducing architecture to the level of the emoji — a drastically simplified icon.

Amazon’s is just the latest manifestation. The W Edinburgh hotel, which opened in the Scottish capital last year, deservedly drew similar brickbats with its swirling, brown spiral. Back in 2007, work started on Santiago Calatrava’s Chicago Spire, a drill-bit skyscraper that never made it beyond the enormous round hole of its foundations. Bjarke Ingels’ spiral museum for watchmaker Audemars Piguet in Le Chenit, Switzerland was meant, perhaps, to evoke a watch spring; it reminds me more of apple peel.

Construction is ongoing at one of the weirdest spirals, the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory on the Isle of Portland in the English Channel, designed by Adjaye Associates. It might be finished before mankind joins the list. The $1bn Diamond Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, started off as a bizarre machine part, like some biomorphic drill-bit. More recent renderings make it look like an industrial chimney with helical strakes — the spiral windbreaks that channel the wind to reduce vibration.

Foster + Partners have also indulged, using spirals brilliantly atop the glass Reichstag dome in Berlin, turning politics into tourism — and much less successfully in London with the about-to-be-abandoned GLA building, as well as on the now almost entirely obscured “Gherkin” in the City. And you might argue that Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards is a kind of hybrid honeycomb/spiral, another brown, winding staircase to nowhere that has been closed indefinitely after its third suicide in less than a year.

Of course, spirals are hardly new. The remarkable spiral minaret at Samarra in Iraq (possibly, indirectly, the inspiration for Bruegel’s tower) dates from the ninth century, and in the modern age Vladimir Tatlin’s towering Monument to the Third International, designed in 1919, became perhaps the most influential unbuilt building. And of course there’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. But it makes for a terrible gallery; the paintings are never parallel with the floor so they always seem wonky.

This was the beginning of the icon, when the architectural form became more important than its function and — unlike another excessive type such as the Gothic cathedral — did nothing to support that function with symbolism or meaning. Tatlin’s spiral became more powerful precisely because it was never built. It became a ghost that haunted architecture, the purest utilitarian engineering subverted as a symbol. It was a brilliant paradox, a meaning machine.

Amazon’s spiral, meanwhile, is the opposite, twisted by the power of computing to create impossible curves, an expensive structure with unnecessary shapes to express dim corporate banality. Like Heatherwick’s Vessel, it goes nowhere.

It’s hard to see the spiral as some kind of aspiration towards the symbolic because when we talk of spirals, it is almost always with negative connotations: a pilot’s graveyard spiral, a spiral into madness, a spiral of debt. Another oddity about the appropriation of the spiral by corporate culture is its utter impracticality. Conical buildings are tricky to inhabit: they make for awkward spaces and chunky walls.

Of course, spirals are hardly new. The remarkable spiral minaret at Samarra in Iraq (possibly, indirectly, the inspiration for Bruegel’s tower) dates from the ninth century, and in the modern age Vladimir Tatlin’s towering Monument to the Third International, designed in 1919, became perhaps the most influential unbuilt building. And of course there’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. But it makes for a terrible gallery; the paintings are never parallel with the floor so they always seem wonky.

Although the new Amazon HQ is billed as a ramble in the woods, through the greenery at its twisting edge, if anything it reeks of the endless uphill struggle of labour, and its expense and extravagance contrast starkly with the anonymous banality of the warehouses where the money is made. The verdant pubes of contemporary rendering are pure greenwash — where are those trees’ roots going to grow? — an attempt to disguise the vacuity of the architecture.

Ultimately, the problem with the spiral is the pinnacle. A spiral twists into nothingness, and it’s hard to tell what happens at the point of this one: a place for hikers and smokers, perhaps, or glass walls to stop jumpers and catch the wind.

Perhaps the most infamous spiral in the western cultural imagination is still Dante’s “Inferno”. It’s true that it is inverted, its screw-shape burrowing downwards, but at its centre is Satan, buried up to his waist, sending forth “blasts of ignorance, impotence and hatred”, as the poet says.

Perhaps, like TV, literature and life stories, corporate culture has been captured by today’s obsession with everything being “a journey”. The spiral, with its slow vertical ascent and its deceitful depiction of a sylvan utopia enabled by technology and ornamented by nature, gives the illusion of that journey, embodied in the glass architecture of the magic mountain. But watch out when you get to the top.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

Follow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus