“In which brand shall we build?”

Way back in 2010, the home page of one of the first iterations of this blog had the following mission statement.

Have you ever thought Rem Koolhaas might be just another person? Or Harvard GSD not the centre of the Universe? Are you unmoved by biennali and festivali, and neither like nor ‘like’ anything on ArchDaily? Do you sense something’s very wrong with architecture? 
We do too. Welcome. 
Food and shelter are both essential for human life but food is anything from a bowl of rice a day to some exquisite mouthful for a moment’s pleasure. Junk food is somewhere in-between but so too is just the right amount of nutrition our bodies need. 
It’s the same with shelter. We’ve got bread buildings that fill, cake buildings that thrill, and junk buildings that make us want more. 
All misfits wants is a nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well, makes us feel good because it is good for us, and that doesn’t cost the earth or cost us the earth.

Qualitative virtue and quantitative virtue are often presented as opposites but this simply isn’t so. If food can be both delicious and nutritious at the same time, then surely buildings can be too. Our architectural diet may contain a high proportion of junk buildings that do little or nothing for our physiologies but that’s our choice and our problem. We know they’re no good. Shifting from the perception of one to the reality of the other – rebranding – is tricky. It runs the risk of destroying what it was people liked in the first place. 

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Most brands attempts aim to create new markets without alienating existing ones. This is particularly true for the music industry but the same holds for any of the marketing and PR-creative industries. Including architecture. “Not as good as the last one” is something no marketing director wants to hear. Every “lost his/her touch” has to be countered by an over-excited “[name of architect or firm – but usually Bjarke Ingels] is back on form!”

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That mission statement also contained a warning to watch out for the homeopathic buildings that make all sorts of claims impossible to prove. That certain building products may cause illness is beyond a doubt. Some people may even have a valid preference for natural and unprocessed materials. Some materials are feelgood materials because they actually feel good. Smooth and polished wood handrails and door handles are just more pleasant to touch than metal ones. The quality and quantity of daylighting and ventilation has obvious connections for physiological well being. The size and shape of spaces influence acoustic comfort just as much as the surfaces of those spaces. There shouldn’t be any question regarding whether any of these should be sacrificed for some unproven link between visual input and aesthetic comfort, whatever that is. But there is.

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As with anything else, we have buildings misleadingly labelled and sold. One example of this is greenwashing. A building looks like a “green” building because it has one or more tropes such as a green roof or a living wall usually associated with green buildings despite that roof or wall adding little tangible benefit in terms of thermal performance or even providing meaningful food. It’s one of the recent incarnations of the postmodernist mantra of a representation being better than the real thing.

0 GRAMS TRANS FAT? Unlikely. The small TM mark (at the bottom of the check mark) means nobody can copy that graphic or create anything that looks misleadingly similar. It means you are looking at a graphic and not at text intended to convey (verified) information.

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For most of last century, architects strove to create their own brands even though we all referred to the architectural component of this as a “signature style”. Like bow ties and big-rimmed spectacles, it all seems rather dated and quaint now. The oldest of this old school is perhaps Frank Gehry irrespective of who designs the actual buildings. A Richard Meier building is usually recognizable as a Richard Meier Building. The same can be said of High-tech architects Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, the structural expressionist Santiago Calatrava and less expressionist architects such as David Chipperfield.

It was only in the mid-1990s that I became aware of the shift from personal “signature style” branding to corporate branding but, for a while, there was the hybrid phenomena of architect personalities with their own recognizable styles or approaches attempting to keep them independent of businesses that had their own reputations to uphold. We can think of Tom Ford at GUCCI or many a famous chef at some separately famous restaurant. It doesn’t happen so often these days, but over 1995-2005, there was

Will Alsop at RMJM,

Shaun (“sheikh whisperer”) Killa at ATKINS,

and Andrew Bromberg at AEDAS,

The unbuilt works of Andrew Bromberg at AEDAS are an oeuvre in themselves.

This variation upgrades the role of design director to a brand within a brand. The occasional project impossible to execute only reinforces the impression of visionary creatives but still grounded in reality. In the end, corporations are greater than their founders. Despite the stylistic tropes, the Richard Rogers Partnership and Foster + Partners became known for consistently producing buildings of a style and quality suited to either airports or large commercial or cultural buildings for a certain type of monied client. In the mid-1990s however, came the company machines of Jean Nouvel, Herzog de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas/OMA. Signature styles came to be seen as hidebound and uncreative and the goal was now to produce successive buildings that were not the same. The nature of branding was forcibly changed and buildings contrivedly different or novel from anything before were promoted as creative and innovative even though it was often creativity and innovation for the sake of creativity and innovation.

In the light of the death of Zaha Hadid 2016, Rem Kookhaas suggested Zaha Hadid Architects learn from fashion house Chanel and fashion house Alexander McQueen that successfully continued the brand without their founders. His choice of brand examples is telling. What about SOM? Or Palmer and Turner – a company that began in Hong Kong in 1868 and, since 1891, has been known as Palmer and Turner and, more recently, P&T Group, after Clement Palmer and William Turner. Clement Palmer designed the first Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in Shanghai. That’s it on the left of Customs House.

Mr. Palmer was 23 in 1883 when it opened. Since the passing of Messrs. Palmer and Turner, the P&T group has managed to cope with 1,600 architects spread across 70 countries. The difference is that Chanel and Alexander McQueen fashion houses are brands producing goods known as designer goods because they have a designer’s name attached to them. It’s still early days for Zaha Hadid Architects.

OMA sources tell me OMA designers are not allowed to develop ideas from any project more than two years old.

Once a company becomes a brand in this way, the name behind the brand becomes irrelevant. In 2007, the Richard Rogers Partnership became Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners in order to signal an awareness of the inevitable. Foster + Partners is keeping the line of succession veiled. What will OMA be without Rem Koolhaas? This is already being imagined, for Rem Koolhaas has said We are a partnership with nine partners each with their own individuality and talents, and that is increasingly recognized and also promoted by the company in terms of crediting partners individually for the work they are doing.” (Joshua Prince Ramus might not be convinced.) It doesn’t really matter with MVRDV or BIG as both acronyms are by now known more as names than for the people behind them. Or fronting them.

What to do? The idea of a company projecting an image of its perceived value to potential clients (or opinion makers) isn’t going to go away. That value can be tangible or intangible or a combination of both, and is subject to change and not necessarily driven by either producer or market. Architects will follow the money and the larger the practice the more money they need to follow. One could be mistaken for thinking that architecture doesn’t exist outside of harbour or waterfront masterplanning, airports and railway stations.

The job for any production facility then, whether factory, artist, fashion house or architecture firm, is to gain a reputation for delivering what the client market demands. If the market demands unceasing novelty, then what we get is an array of producers whose output may appear different but at the same time is somewhat samey. This was what I concluded from after this years Misfits’ Trienalle. It’s to be expected when the same firms compete with each other for the same commissions. The global architectural practice is a creature of its times. I look forward to a time when they are no more and there is space for smaller and more nimble practices not to take their place, but to do more nuanced local work for their local users. We don’t need a global architecture any more than we needed an international one.

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