This week I consider the necessity of taking a more spohisticated approach to branding the architectural profession.
Recently a friend told me the story of visiting an eminent architect on the weekend in his specially designed holiday house. My friend was visiting with her partner, and another friend, a wealthy philanthropist who potentially had oodles of money to spend on architecture and architects. To my friend’s horror the party of visitors found the eminent architect reclining in his Eamesy Carlo Mollino chairy chaise lounge thing and casually doing a few Sunday afternoon sketches with, of all things, charcoal sticks and yellow trace. He was even wearing a bow tie for god’s sake (I can’t even tie one of those) and my friend swore she could see signs of Botox on his brow. The contrived nature of this scene, he had been warned that th emoney was coming to visit, shocked both my friend, and the philanthropist, who afterwards felt no desire to commission anything with someone so flirtatiously pretentious.
The architecture brand, and the branded architect, is bedevilled by superficial gestures that seem to play up on a broader notion of the architect as a kind of creative genius with yellow trace. Whenever I go out to dinner and meet bankers, lawyers, managing consultants, doctors or medical specialists (especially the anesthetists) they all say, “oh so you are an architect” and then “that’s SOOOO interesting” and then the punch line ” I always wanted to be an architect.” I hate that so much. But usually, like most architects I just grit my teeth and try to smile. However, we really should stop putting up with this shit and tell people what we really do. And then charge them lots of moolah for it.
But, my own pet hates aside, the above situations do raise the question of branding. How should architects brand themselves and their services? Should we rely on the old tropes of the creative dandy with the yellow trace? Or should the profession seek to brand and promote itself in entirely new ways? Ways that address the global commodification of space, the rapid evolution of social media and the disconnection of community experienced by various publics.
Interestingly Assemble, who won the 2015 Turner prize, are a collective that suggest how changes in contemporary practice require architects to think about branding. Firstly assemble is not one (one genius), or two (one male genius plus one “business” type) or even three architects (one genius, one “business” type and one “networker”). We all know about these tropes and its great that Assemble has 18 members and it proclaims to “work across the fields of art, architecture and design.” More interestingly Assemble claim to “involve the public as both participant and collaborator in the ongoing realisation of the work.”
This is a really different model of practice and it is one that suggests a different approach to branding the architectural firm (if you want to call it that) rather than one just based on a name or a cult of aesthetic dandyism and pretentious yellow tracings. Powerful brands for architectural firms are those that connect with the public (not only the clients) that they serve. To do this requires a firm strategy that connects a strong narrative to the firm’s public as well as its potential clients. Just having some superficial and funky graphics, and a bow tie, and a cool geographical name is not really enough these days.
The big star brands in global architecture such as OMA, ZHA, Gehry, Fosters and Rogers are really good at branding. They all have a story to tell. Their brands are built on being able to control, market and amplify themselves through various communication channels and media. In these instances, these firms are more well known, and better branded, than much larger firms such as HOK or Gensler or AECOM who gain more revenue in dollar terms than the celebrity architectural brands. These days only a few Australian architectural firms make the global rankings published each year by Building Design magazine. Hence, there is no reason why any firm for that matter can seem much more potent than what it is via effective branding and control over different and emerging media channels.
In strategic management theory effective branding is way to position a firm in relation to its competitors. Derived from firm strategy it should guide and be the template for communicating the firms’ core services, client and user experience and social media interactions. It should also guide and be integrated with a firm’s working culture. Too often the connection between and the perception of the architects brand and the internal working culture of the office is in conflict.
In some ways architects are rooted and based the local architectural culture and traditions of their own city. An effective and well through out brand can enable, even a small firm, to look much bigger than it is. As someone recently asked me what are the attributes of Australia’s architectural brand in the global system and how does this compare to the branding of Danish, French, English or Italian architects. Is the global brand of Australian architecture simply perceived through the lense of Murcutt sheds, The Opera House or maybe its all about swimming pools?
Whenever, as architects, we go to the Venice Architectural Biennale why do we so admire the Nordic pavilion and the Nordic architects represented in it. Why can’t Australian’s just exhibit the work of a few architects, or focus on a few themes, in our pavilion instead of having some kind of generic free for all where every firm, or mediocre idea, gets a guernsey?
Other professions, such as the lawyers and the accountants, have done a better job of promoting themselves to the public. Architects have done little to do craft brand strategy’s in any collective sense and it shows. As a global brand architect’s need to do more work to promote Australian architecture as a place of architectural experiment with its own unique cities, landscape, canon and traditions. I guess I am sick of seeing architecture being seen as some kind of washed out and generic supermarket brand.
It’s time architects collectively realised that branding is not just about a the old tropes, a few cool names, a bit of funky graphics, bow ties and yellow trace. After all is said and done its really about the narrative.
The crazy season is upon us in the small corner of my universe known as the graduate architecture school. The students have two weeks to go and quite a few of them already started sleeping in the atrium.