Branding Is Not Architecture
Recently it was revealed that the architecture firm founded by the late Zaha Hadid has, over the past five years, paid her foundation $16 million for the use of her name. Why would a “Name Firm,” created by a star, need to buy the rights to use that star’s name? With scores of celebrated buildings, what’s the value of a name?
I would argue that the value of a deceased architect’s name is incidental to the value of the buildings they designed. And yet the millions spent on the Zaha name was considered a good investment. Of course, branding in architecture is nothing new. Frank Lloyd Wright was a master of it: “Organic Architecture,” “Prairie School Architecture,” “Usonian Architecture,” and, of course, the signature cape and porkpie hat. Michael Graves and his Alessi teapot effectively branded Postmodernism, later dismissed in the architectural marketplace as being as shallow as the branding itself. Hadid designed expressively shaped buildings, had a theatrical first name, and demonstrated a flair for distinctive scarves.
But branding becomes more important when the market shrinks and competition grows—or, in this case, when the face of the firm, the “rainmaker,” has left to meet her maker. Recent history has also contributed to branding mania. In 2008, the world economy collapsed, and architects were once again caught in the whipsaw of the construction industry’s manic cycles. With fewer commissions out there and emerging technology eliminating many staff positions, numerous architects had no work. The number of firms—especially small new ones—exploded as laptop designers set up studios in their parents’ basements. “Branding” became increasingly important to those who had built little beyond their ambition.
In 2016, Lindsay Kramer offered The Complete Guide to Architect Branding, in which she correctly stated that “there are no wrong answers” to finding one’s “brand identity.” But design is not like selling fried chicken. Colonel Sanders offered a benign, even ingratiating image to those who were looking to eat. “Branding” a food with a person is combining an object with its symbolic purveyor.
There is no “brand” of architect or architecture. When that’s attempted, the exquisitely human act of creating is treated like a bucket of chicken to be sold and consumed.
Yet despite all educational, institutional, and marketing efforts, architecture is not just buildings. And it is not just designers, either. Architecture is a unique combination of people in need of a building, other people who can help vision them, and still others who build them, each in a particular neighborhood, culture, and moment in time. There is no “brand” of architect or architecture. When that’s attempted, the exquisitely human act of creating is treated like a bucket of chicken to be sold and consumed.
In creating the “persona” of the designer as a vehicle for promotion, rather than the process and its results, the act of design is trivialized and offered up as a reason for associating with a cool person. But a particular design is either compelling or not. Selling a product in architecture is like trying to market psychiatry or religion: deeply idiosyncratic realities, unique to each human, that can’t be honestly captured into a “brand” and then sold. If designs and designers could be packaged like extra-crispy chicken, then the efforts of the AIA over the last 70 years to “brand” architecture as an essential value in our culture would have succeeded. In truth, every act of design is dependent on the circumstances of the designer, client, and context; every project is, or should be, a one-off exercise in invention, not building a “brand.”
Once completed, buildings are largely out of the control of the designer. Anyone can be “branded,” but a designer has the realities of what they have designed behind them: the process, the product, the impact on the clients and communities they worked in. These truths cannot be wished away through marketing.
A recent webinar offered insights into “Building an Unforgettable Personal Brand.” According to the site, “This workshop is designed to help people like you who want to build a brand under your personal name,” allowing designers to “attract your ideal clients in your industry.” No mention of what you value, how you work, and why what you do has meaning—just all about you.
It’s comforting to believe that your persona will help attract “ideal” projects, but your “ideal” is never real in this world. Does the architect who creates the design mean more than the act of creation itself? To most people, a finished building is more important than the architect who designed it. That is especially true when the designer is dead.
“Branding” is a new/old mantra: Old in advertising, newly powerful in the internet age, when “key words” and “rankings” produce attention. But the designer is never the design, no matter what “branding” the designer concocts. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in a website’s images and recipes.
A designer’s “brand” is a perverse simplification of the creative process, a superficial mating of ego and aesthetics.
Style over substance reduces the joys of creativity into pattern and type. A designer’s “brand” is a perverse simplification of the creative process, a superficial mating of ego and aesthetics. The desire is not to do good work, but to get the opportunity to do any work (hopefully, the self-defined “ideal” kind).
Designers effectively bestow their gifts on everyone, because their designs can be used by anyone, and live on after architects are no longer part of their building’s reality. Hadid may have been flamboyant, artful, charismatic, but many architects are, and yet do not achieve her incredible success. She thrived because she did compelling work, not because she manifested an image that attracted clients. People valued the buildings that Hadid created, not the scarves she wore. When architects die, their work is history, not marketing tools.
Despite all “branding” to the contrary, no design is ever the designer. Buildings respond to sites, technologies, finances, and laws, using aesthetics to evolve a creation. In an effort to manifest their hopes and put food on the table, architects, like anyone else, often value their work over humanity, so Taliesin soldiered on for 60 years after its human “master” died. But buying someone’s name, “branding” it, denies the value of the beauty that the human created. Ultimately, the magic of creation does not lie with its creator. Instead, it’s the continuing joy of its realization.
Featured image of Zaha Hadid via Art News.