“Architecture is an expression of values” Norman Foster, 2014.
People often refer to brand building, but what of brand buildings?
Foster’s not wrong – for as long as architecture has had the monumental power to impress, it has been a tool of branding. Were not the colossal structures of Rome a means of articulating the immense power of the ancient behemoth to its subjects? Or Baroque churches of the Catholic world giant advertisements whose client-on-retainer was God?
Making the intangible tangible
Nowadays a physical structure is as important as ever in conveying what a company means. With so many brands becoming abstracted in the internet era, more of a sense of actuality is needed to feel… real. So we see companies like Google and Apple investing billions in their new HQs in California – roping in big name architects in the form of Bjarke Ingels and Norman Foster. In the age of the ether, bricks & mortar is strange. It’s exotic.
And it’s not a practice purely confined to Silicon Valley and its tech billions. Luxury brands, those most image-reliant providers of product, have for many years been trying to articulate themselves in gold and glass. In red leather reception desks and ebony coffee tables. Just look at the work of Peter Marino, architect to brands (of the stars), whose eccentrically-dressed personage has designed spaces for luxury big hitters like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. For Marino, it’s as much about giving browsers a ‘positive brand experience’ as it is any vulgar kind of sales conversion – the epitome of the architecture of branding.
Buildings as brands
Vauxhall Tower - Credit to my friend, who’s coined this the 'Nose Hair Trimmer’.
The not-so-subtle hand of branding is at work in London too. With The Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater (etc. etc.) we have readily-coinable descriptors that give these buildings – multi-million pound businesses in themselves – a market and build their profile. With the Shard in particular, Norman Foster was manifestly aware that – like it or not – any eccentrically-shaped building will garner a name for itself.
This was the case with Foster + Partners’ gherkin-shaped 30 St Mary Axe building before – much to architect, Ken Shuttleworth’s ire – and it would be again. And so Renzo Piano pre-empted this for his new skyline 'blockbuster' with a name that would immediately grab hold and resonate: The Shard. Thus we begin to see the peculiar trend of architecture chasing that elusive brand hook, with the buildings’ designs themselves perhaps not quite up to doing the talking themselves.
This curious situation is most apparent China, specifically Shanghai. Here, gaudily-decorated and idiosyncratically-shaped skyscrapers scream for attention in an increasingly confused Pudong skyline. Disgruntled Chinese commentators have decried it as a Western architects’ playground – for me it’s the hotbed of ‘buildings as brands’.
The 3D logo
The Guggenheim, Bilbao
But what of more concerted attempts to rebrand through architecture? Buildings like the Guggenheim in Bilbao or The Lowry in Manchester invited a flood of urban regeneration initiatives. Buildings the cultural contrarian Jonathan Meades scathingly described as ‘3D logos’. For some brands it’s the building itself that builds the brand - whether that brand be a post-industrial city or, say, an Italian lager.
Brands as buildings
House of Peroni is a harmonious example of experiential branding meeting architecture and design. Its Holborn townhouse has been reappropriated to become a pure articulation of Peroni’s dolce vita ethos. Art (not lager) lovers can head over and inhale deep on the intoxicating fumes of an Italian culture more authentic than the tax-free, taste-free output of Cafe Nero et al.
Some brands clearly find it useful to appropriate an architectural style that fits with their aesthetic. Tate Modern is a great example of a cultural institution taking over a building chosen to mirror their Modernist/Industrial pretensions. They took on Southwark's former power plant for its aesthetics, perhaps without much considered thought about how the building's spaces would eventually function for the exhibition of art.
Building your brand essence
Team Disney Building
Some companies manage to create buildings that really do represent what they stand for. Lego’s new HQ in Billund is just the latest in a long line of corporate headquarters that mirror company ethos. The ‘Team Disney’ building in Burbank, California, with its classic ‘Seven Dwarf facade motif’ captured the brand’s sense of fun & wonder perfectly when it was completed in 1990. So too does Lego’s ‘Experience Centre’ seek to be a pure articulation of the company’s ‘play and create’ essence. With self-confessed brick-botherer Bjarke Ingels again at the helm, the building looks set to be a design classic to the benefit of both Lego and Denmark itself.
National psyche, in concrete and glass
If a nation can be a brand (as indeed they most certainly can), then they too assume these tactics. Take the United States of America: this client’s brief was creating a brand new embassy in Nine Elms, South London. Architects KierenTimberlake’s proposed building is derived from a host of psychological factors on-brief and off. It’s solid, it’s massive, it’s transparent, it has a moat. It is both open and defensive. Here we have, in concrete and glass, a nation’s ongoing struggle to redefine itself as a brand. We see architecture as directly representative of national psyche.
Public image, unlimited
The new Googleplex
And so we return back to Google and Apple, perhaps the most current examples of brands seeking to represent themselves in concrete and glass. The tech giants are building ‘unseen utopias’ – latter day incarnations of the medieval walled garden paradise. For visionary tech brands like these, image is as powerful as the functionality of any website or app.
There needs to be always an air of the mystical - of the visionary colony built on earth to shine light on mere mortals. The new HQs answer this brief perfectly. Enough publicity to be seen, enough secrecy to garner appeal.
What have we learned?
It’s no great surprise that the commercial behemoths of the world would want to build monuments to their values. Is there really any difference in the marvels of the pre-modern world and those of our time? For the supercompany is surely the superpower of our day. Google is our Rome (Yahoo! our Carthage?) and Steve Jobs our immortal pharaoh.
Internet era intangibility is only going to see a further rise in ‘concrete’ brand articulation. Architecture always has, and always will have a unique power to express values.
Brand values you can see and touch, in marble, steel, glass and concrete.
Written by Ferdie Simon, Writer at The Clearing.