Article (June 01, 2001)

Earlier this spring I was invited to moderate a panel discussion at this year’s instalment of the biannual Banff Session. The topic was Branding, which, as the Alberta Association of Architects’ promotional postcard underscores, provided a fitting double entendre related to that province’s famed cattle industry. In the context of the session, it referred to the impact of corporate and institutional identity on architecture and design.

The speakers at the session were selected based on their experience with this type of work. Eva Maddox of Chicago-based Eva Maddox Associates, Inc. has worked extensively in the area of corporate identity and environmental graphics and developed the notion of Branded Environments, interpreting an organization’s image and mission in the design of physical space and communication materials. Siamak Hariri and David Pontarini of Toronto’s Taylor Hariri Pontarini Architects have worked with such identity-conscious clients as retail giants Chapters and Nike and management consultants McKinsey & Company. James Wines of New York-based SITE numbers among his many celebrated projects the highly memorable and irreverent stores for the Best retail chain.

It was pure serendipity–but no small irony–that the Branding session took place on the same April weekend as the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City (see page 30). Since the Battle of Seattle, when that city hosted a World Trade Organization conference in November 1999, global trade meetings have attracted large numbers of protesters. For the small contingent who breach the bounds of peaceful protest to vandalize stores and restaurants, the targets of choice have almost invariably been major international companies with carefully constructed and polished corporate identities. In an ironic inversion, by virtue of their high visibility the most powerful, iconic brands have emerged as the most vulnerable: one person’s friendly burger chain or trendy coffee house is another’s environmental villain or exploiter of the world’s poor.

In recent years, the anti-brand backlash has entered the mainstream of contemporary discourse. Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Random House, 2000) not only made the best-seller lists, it also received the National Business Book Award for 2000. Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine has built up a loyal following with its spoof ads and “uncommercials.” In 1999, the magazine updated the First Things First Manifesto, a tract originally launched in 1964 by disgruntled designers who exhorted their peers to embrace “a mind shift away from product marketing and towards the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.” Adbusters recently conducted a Re-Design Contest based on the principles of the manifesto (see

A measure of this sensibility found its way to Banff. Two of the speakers started their presentations by expressing suspicion of branding. James Wines, who has embraced sustainable design as his current area of interest, proffered an indictment of branding that, although delivered in Banff, might have been right at home in Quebec City. “Branding is about ever-increasing consumption and the power of persuasion,” he said. “We’re out of the industrial age and in the age of information, but this still means a tremendous amount of consumption. It’s just switched from necessities to luxuries. The same is true in architecture. Star architects are making obscenely wasteful buildings. We’ve reached a point where the economic paradigm must change.” Marco Polo