[ "Branded" Architecture ]


Absentmindedly, I came across an article in Discovery Magazine, published by Cathay Pacific Airlines, on my way from Vietnam to Tokyo. The article, entitled 'Upper Storeys,' touches on the partnership between famous architects and real estate developers but the portrayal of it really disturbed me. They were discussing how hiring a 'Starchitect' was part of the business strategy to market luxury real estate. Here are the quotes I'd like to discuss : : 

" . . . This is one of the most recent instances in a global trend of using 'starchitects' to design residential buildings. It's an increasingly lucrative market . . . "

" . . . According to the report, the appeal for buyers lies in the chance to associate themselves with a name designer -- the real estate equivalent of carrying a Prada handbag -- and trust, especially for investors from emerging markets who are attracted to buying into a recognized brand . . . "

" . . . 'A brand gives buyers confidence,' says John Hitchcock, Chairman and co-founder of Yoo, one of the pioneers of the branded residential concept . . . "

" . . .  A star name clearly adds value, particularly at the top end of the market. It's almost essential to employ a noteworthy architect as a partner if you want to create a super-prime development . . . "

" . . . These transactions [condo sales in Gehry's HK tower] demonstrate the market's appreciation for the building. Gehry's design has created a rare product and one worthy of a premium price . . . "

To summarize : : The Architect is a brand. Their Work is a product. And their Service is a commodity. You might think, "What's wrong with that? The Architect gets work, the developer makes money and residents get great homes. Isn't it good business?" But that is the critical point. By reducing the Architects work to a commodity, monetizing it, and making it an investment strategy it undermines the entire profession.

This mentality is 'Vulture Capitalism.' Marginalizing the Architect establishes a system that rewards exploitation, siphons opportunity from young designers and homogenizes our skylines. This is a particular symptom in modern Asian markets such as Dubai, China, HK and Singapore, who have a flagrant inclination towards brands over substance.

Commoditizing a service disproportionately favors the investor and often works to the detriment of everyone else involved. Consider the American health insurance industry. As it has Hyper-Commoditized in the past 50 years, Value has been severed from Service. The fate of America's health has become a boardroom topic, negotiated, inflated, perverted, leveraged, lobbied, packaged and sold to patients -- regardless of their needs or conditions. America spends 20% of its GDP on healthcare, more than Japan, Germany, France, China, the UK, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia combined. Yet more than 47million Americans do not have health insurance, 60% of all bankruptcies filed are related to healthcare bills and insurance companies continue to post astonishing profits and double digit growth. The result? Bloat, waste, corruption, excess and lower life expectancy and overall health than any other industrialized nation. { figures from Steven Brill's Time article: Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us }

The reason for this lengthy anecdote is to illustrate a point. Commoditization perverts the nature of the Doctor-Patient and Architect-Client relationship.

Architecture mustn't become a 'Luxury.' Even today, more than 80% of projects are built without the intervention of an Architect. Thusly, we stand at a precarious moment in our profession. We have to resist further developer subjugation. Moreover, we have to preserve and encourage young talent to aspire, compete and thrive in this vast, complex market. We have to make Architecture accessible, meaningful and essential to the public. And most importantly we have to fight to maintain the integrity of our work.

~D LeBell 

Q : : How do those quotes make you feel? Do you agree/disagree? What do you think we can do in the future to make Architecture more accessible? 

Feb 25, 13 2:47 pm

I am currently working for Dr. Anna Klingmann. She has written extensively on the subject of  Brandism and coined the phrase "Brandscapes" in her book Brandscapes. Check it out.

Feb 25, 13 3:07 pm

Wabi: Beyond that, the branding is only skin deep, the substance is to be found not in the quality of the product but in the profit it produces. I'm surprised that it took an article in an airline magalogue for you to see this.

And it is not just residential. It's been accelerating for decades and is the only explanation for Gehry and rest. It's the architecture of capitalism.

Feb 25, 13 3:21 pm

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