In contemporary western society, ‘needs’ are surpassed by ‘desires’ and the acquisition of basic goods has been replaced by a search for emotional satisfaction, a search for an identity or distinctiveness, and an aspiration to belong.

Buildings, just like generic products, fulfil needs, but architecture fulfils desires.

Just as branded products provide representational or aspirational value, architecture provides an environment that people can relate to emotionally and make a part of their lifestyles. Architecture can also be seen as a catalyst that brands its user. It supports and boosts identity and aspirations of clients and fulfils their economic and social ambitions through new structures, interfaces and networks that facilitate growth and transformation. Architecture is in a sense a promotional medium and an identity definer. It is a medium that promotes social relationships as well as individual enterprises, and can be used as a symbol of territorial identity. That is why architecture must be understood in both its symbolic and its operational dimensions.

As a result of cultural fragmentation and pluralism coupled with a fast-paced capitalist consumerism, many cities have resorted to commissioning ‘brand-name’ architects to design iconic buildings that can transcend cultural, traditional, and local difference. In this regard, architecture can even be seen as one of the principle vehicles for national expressions of identity; or in other cases, as statements of the political ideology of the governing elites.

From a commercial perspective, or in terms of corporate brand identity, architecture is also used in conjunction with corporate identity. In corporate identity, architecture is used to reflect the brand in the consistency of the design and visual appearance. From both an architectural and a branding perspective, buildings are already understood as symbols of good taste, power and status. This is evident in financial and corporate headquarters within public institutions, the commercial sector, and the retail industry. In return, this has created the notion of the building as a marketing object—or seeing architecture as a branding device.

For example, certain architecturally designed or engineered buildings have a power to generate enormous public interest (e.g. the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House). Such buildings have become brands in their own right, while at the same time being landmarks that can communicate the vision of their cities. To promote their landmarks (and consequently their cities), city administrators have worked with advertising agencies, publishing houses, broadcasters and other emerging media industries to create an extensive ‘critical infrastructure’ of urban guidebooks, reviews and press coverage in an attempt to mediate increasingly complex consumer space. As shifts in global, national and local economic bases have forced cities to market themselves internationally in search of new sources of revenue, the concept of city marketing has not only helped to ‘sell’ these urban identities, but it has also inspired the creation of new ones.

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain) is one of the most highlighted examples of this practice today. While this museum does not function particularly well as an exhibition space, it provides an exceptionally effective marketing tool for Bilbao. At the very beginning, the building was not conceived merely as an art museum, but as a strategy of Bilbao’s city leaders to create an iconic, identity-enhancing structure that would act as a premier tourist destination in order to revive the city’s economy. This architectural investment proved to be highly successful and served as an example to others.

The so-called ‘Bilbao effect’ inspired cities such as Singapore, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Shanghai, and Beijing to follow suit. These cities have ventured into ambitious architectural projects in an attempt to reposition themselves as emerging cities into bustling metropolises. The unveiling of major architectural works in these ‘emerging’ cities has generated enormous publicity. These high-profile buildings have not only had a positive social and economic impact on the cities themselves; they have also put them on the ‘fast track’ to join the rankings of well-recognised city brands such as New York, Paris and London. In return, iconic architecture has become so central to the image of the city brand that cities without icons can be described as corporations without logos.

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