We live in a society in which our everyday consumption of goods and services has evolved and expanded to encompass our own individual experiences. In this experience driven economy, products are marketed as ‘a series of memorable events’ that will positively impact the consumer on a personal level (Pine & Gilmore, 1999, pg. 2). This marketing model has seeped into architectural design, turning cities, streets and buildings into products for user consumption. Architectural practice and branding are now therefore inextricably linked and it has become impossible to ignore how much each discipline borrows from or utilises the other. Global brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Nike use architecture within their wider marketing strategies and buildings designed by starchitects have become the icons with which to brand cities, while many streets and public spaces have lost their local identity in the global onslaught of commercial branding.
Fig. 1: Consuming the physical environment.
This article will aim to respond to the undeniable influence of branding on architecture by unpacking its contentious role within city streets, exploring both its failure to respect the heterogeneity of individual places and its potential to generate authentic identities and experiences. This exploration will be carried out in the context of two commercial ‘streets’; Grafton Street in Dublin and the Victoria Square development in Belfast.
City streets are often characterised by a commercial or retail function which is expected to enliven street edges and increase footfall. In the past, these streets were branded by local businesses and shops which offered a unique consumer experience, contextual to that place. With the spread of globalisation, the traditional High Street typology of a local, contextual brand has been lost as multinational corporations have spread to commercial streets all over the world. If we examine the shops and brands of many major commercial streets globally, the same brand names and logos continue to appear on both building facades and signage. For example, there is little difference between the international branding of Grafton Street in Dublin and that found at Victoria Square in Belfast, even though the typology of both spaces is quite different. As a result of this spread in global branding, many commercial streets ‘tend to be strangely familiar’ even ‘despite the emphasis each place puts on creating a unique destination’ (Minton, 2009, pg. 54).
Fig. 2: Analysis of international branding at Victoria Square.
This trend is taken to the extreme in places where advertising forms the physical backdrop to people’s interactions on the street below. In street intersections such as Times Square in New York and Piccadilly Circus in London, spaces in which people normally meet and congregate have become characterised as places whose sole intent is to glorify brands. These spaces, with their towering digital screens, billboards and banners, are icons of their cities, attracting thousands of visitors annually. But the individual identity of these places has been subsumed by global branding and they are so non-descript in terms of cultural identity that they could be located almost anywhere in the world. In this way, places such as these have quite literally become products that people can buy, use and sell.
A further step in global place-branding is that many streets are now themselves being marketed as brands for their cities. Famous examples of some such streets include Las Ramblas in Barcelona or Fifth Avenue in New York. By turning such spaces into branded products, the unique atmospheres and qualities of such streets are used to attract people to the city. The consumer therefore interacts with the street not only as a thoroughfare or a retail zone, but as a product that in itself can offer a memorable experience. If we take Grafton Street in Dublin as an example, we can see that there are a number of elements, that when combined, create the unique character of the place and help market it as a product. The physical environment of the street itself contributes to this; whether it is interesting facade elements on the buildings’ upper stories, the materiality of the pavement or even the annual Christmas lighting. The hustle and bustle of the packed street, with all its sights and smells, adds another dimension to the space, while Grafton Street’s fame as a location for busking allows music of various styles to provide ambience for the passersby. As a result, all of these qualities combine to create a marketable atmosphere that many people then visit the street to experience.
Another potentially negative result of this rising ‘obsession with treating places as products’ is that it ‘encourages fake environments’ (Minton, 2009, pg. 54). This phenomenon began globally with the conception of literal brandscapes such as Disneyland or Las Vegas. These developments create environments that are completely self-contained and product based. There is nothing real or authentic about such spaces. They offer carefully controlled experiences that are almost escapist in nature within highly constructed environments that claim to offer better versions of life than the outside world. In terms of their architecture, these environments are often pastiche, simply copying or creating caricatured versions of existing places. Such developments take authentic places and experiences and recreate and repackage them in a way that will sell.
A perfect local example of a similarly manufactured street environment, is the Victoria Square development in Belfast. As a newly developed retail destination, it attempts to create a brand and experience which mirrors that of a traditional commercial street. The development fits into an existing fabric of mostly pedestrianised streets, creating a semi-enclosed ‘mock street’ which bleeds out into existing routes. A major difference between mass developments like Victoria Square and organically developed streets such as Grafton Street lies in whether the space itself is fundamentally public or private. Victoria Square is a space that, due to its openness and connectivity with surrounding streets, feels very much like a public space while in actuality it is privately owned. Such private street developments yield ‘to a new definition of place where places no longer apriori exist as part of a local culture but are deliberately constructed based on economic needs of consumption’ (Klingmann, 2003, pg. 11).
So the question arises: how can streets and public realms use branding principles in a way that builds and displays an authentic identity rather than falling into the trap of commercial homogeneity? Perhaps the problem lies in our continued over-reliance on retail and commercial function as the driver of identity and way of enlivening street edges. With the growth of globalisation, online shopping and product delivery, there is less and less necessity for streets characterised purely by a need to buy. When streets lack people, activity and places of pause, our first instinct is still to install some kind of retail function on the ground floor, even though the rationale for such developments is lacking and this approach can often lead to the spread of uniform street environments globally.
Our society values the brand principles of communication and differentiation, and therefore the architecture of our streets needs to reflect these values. The importance of differentiation may mean finding a balance between the local contextual identity of the street and that of its wider global society. Streets must therefore remain rooted in their towns and cities so that their identities do not become completely homogenised by the international market, while also engaging with the ever changing and connected global platform. In terms of communication, this may manifest itself in the creation or redesign of streets intended for people rather than roads designed for cars. Jan Gehl (2010) in his book ‘Cities for People’ provides many insights into how this shift from cars to people may be achieved by using the city of Copenhagen’s pedestrian areas as an example. Because of a rise in pedestrianised streets, users now have more opportunity to pause and interact with their neighbours or fellow pedestrians, thus encouraging communication and relational networks. Gehl’s principle of shaping the city, so that it may in turn shape us (2010, pg. 9), reflects key branding principles of identity and image, demonstrating how communication and perception of place can implement a change in use.
Perhaps in this way streets will find public functions that express the identity of their context beyond merely a place to buy and sell goods and so encourage an alternative perception of what kind of places streets can be. It is time for architects and urban designers to engage with the ‘ongoing conversation or dance between culture and images’, where identity informs the image of a place, and people’s understanding of the image in turn informs the place’s identity (Hatch & Schultz, 2002, pg. 991). If place-identity begins to determine how streets are used, viewed and inhabited, perhaps then an experience of these places will develop that is authentic and not characterised by hyper-commercialism and mass consumption of goods or services.
Gehl, J. (2010) Cities for People, London: Island Press.
Hatch, M.J. & Schultz, M. (2002) ‘The Dynamics of Organisational Identity’ in Human Relations, 55(8), pp. 989–1018.
Klingmann, A. (2003) ‘Brandscapes’ in Archithese, (6), pp. 1-12.
Klingmann, A. (2007) Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Minton, A. (2009) Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Pike, A. (2013) Brands and Branding Geographies, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, Incorporated.
Pine, J. & Gilmore, J. (1999) The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business is a Stage, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.