Viewpoint (April 01, 2003)

Not long ago, I came across an article written by Blaine J. Weber, AIA, of Weber + Thompson, a Seattle architectural firm. The headline, “Marrying design and marketing helps developers create meaningful living spaces,” intimated that some condo developers were reaping the benefits of a carefully crafted design strategy. But Weber went on to say that “coming late to the party, marketers can send a project into a tailspin, creating delays, costly redesign, and frustrations that result from designers and marketers moving in opposite directions.” Well, there’s the rub.

He argued, however, that the problem for architects in the urban high-rise residential community lies not with the marketers, but in the fact that often the design process is not grounded on solid marketing principles. “When the market strategists, graphic designers and advertising and sales teams are included in the design team from the start, design becomes a strategic weapon for building the project’s brand, for creating spaces and places that have an emotional connection to the end user, and for improving the quality of the overall design product.” While he understands that most designers fear and loathe the “design by committee” process, his model for success seems based on the utilitarian perspective that conceives of the greatest good for the greatest number. Hence, for marketers, branding is the most successful strategy–brought about through “identity and essence.” For the client, satisfaction centres around an identification and connection with the brand while feeling good about their investment through a “shared vision.” A designer’s success lies merely in creativity and innovation, because the client is more readily persuaded to embrace innovation, and thus visualizes “demonstrable payback.” Finally, the consumer’s lifestyle and values are given emotional currency because what Weber calls “psychographic buyer profiles” have been heeded in the design and the marketing.

While “spaces and places that have emotional connection to the end user” are surely what architects and dwellers both want, something has been left out of Weber’s means-ends equations. Call it the long view. In this issue, Helena Grdadolnik points out in her review of Vancouver’s Dockside Live/Work Building and Lore Krill Housing Co-op that it is “the ubiquitous pre-sale [that drives] down the standard in the housing market.” The real estate marketing machines, with or without architects’ input, valorize “finishes, views, and ceiling heights” (all aspects of design that can be tailored according to Weber’s collaborative suggestions, to be sure).

It is difficult, when reading Weber’s collaborative proposals for designers and marketers, not to think that the machinery works to benefit the developers’ wallets. What has been left out? Catering to financial gain agenda in lieu of what Grdadolnik calls “aspects less tangible to the average buyer like favourable, or at least habitable, space,” or instead of paying attention to the city’s history when site planning, will mean that our environments are sure to honour consumerism over a respect for pragmatic and aesthetically appropriate urban environments. The brochure that promotes the kind of lifestyle that prospective buyers want, an essential ingredient in the pre-sale strategy, will certainly sell some condos like hotcakes. But what we have bought long after the hotcake has been consumed may be nothing more than another unit in a packaged urban landscape, a dwelling in what one gutsy realtor has called “ugly, boring, repetitive and just plain bad buildings.” These make up a substantial portion of our urban environment. Their damaging effects may be more consequential than merely aesthetic. Nyla Matuk