Design decisions are increasingly directed not by architects but by marketing executives, writes Crystal Bennes
We tend to think of marketing as something of the mind, the 21st-century equivalent of Satan’s whisperings to Eve in the Garden of Eden, rather than as something which has physical form. But of course marketing is often rooted in tangible objects, and nowhere is the relationship between product and advertisement more distempered than in the built environment. We must ask the question, where does architecture end and marketing begin?
Take the housing industry. While the familiar marketing apparatuses of print adverts and occasional video commercials still make an appearance, the primary tricks of the trade are construction hoardings and mocked-up sales showrooms. In most instances, both of these tools themselves require planning permission and effect visible change in the built environment. They are of course pop-ups - here today, gone tomorrow - but when read as a now-requisite extension of many major building projects, these forms take on new power.
For one thing, not all temporary marketing remains temporary. Despite a 1909 circular published by the American Institute of Architects stating that ‘advertising tends to lower the standard of the profession, and is therefore condemned’, Californian property developer Harry Chandler had no such qualms. In 1923, Chandler erected a giant billboard in the hills of LA to market his new housing development: Hollywood. Chandler’s sign has become so famous as a landmark in its own right that we’ve forgotten it was originally a pop-up advertisement. Indeed, in many respects it continues to function as shorthand for a glamorous lifestyle many associate with the Hollywood Hills.
What the example of the Hollywood sign illustrates is the extent to which the construction of new housing has historically gone hand in hand with marketing. In today’s car-centric western USA, large billboards are often found on the edges of motorways or other busy roads. Targeted at domestic buyers, these billboards don’t push an aspirational lifestyle to those sat in their cars, stuck in traffic. ‘If you lived here, you’d be home by now’ exemplifies the US approach. It’s not the aesthetics of luxury, but a shorter commute that seals the deal. Or think of the vogue for Hollywood-esque X-marks-the-spot signage on everything from FAT’s Villa in Hoogvliet to Will Alsop’s Peckham Library: Chandler’s legacy lives on, enfolded within contemporary building design.
Increasingly, hoardings begin to function as a kind of architectural cross-section - where the Platonic ideal of the interior architecture, as an expression of lifestyle, is made publicly visible on the building’s exterior before it is built
Occasionally, entire cities, such as Milton Keynes, and more recently Gurgaon (India’s version of Silicon Valley) have been designed and built with marketing tactics almost as first principles. In Milton Keynes, an initiative to market the project as a ‘city in the trees’ resulted in planning guidelines which stated that no building was to be built taller than the tallest tree, leading to a low-rise mat plan. In Gurgaon, new homes for India’s emerging middle classes are sold on hoardings and billboards which explain why nearly all new housing in the vicinity takes the form of giant, gleaming towers: ‘Let the Skies Sense Your Arrival. Live. Every Moment’, reads a vast poster for the Upton-Hansen Architects-designed Michael Schumacher World Tower, depicting a hovering helicopter about to land. Another boasts ‘360 Degree Living, 100% Privacy’. In Gurgaon, towers have come implicitly to promise privacy and luxury - the lines between the built form of development and its simplistic marketing narratives are blurred.
Of course, such iconography is primarily aimed at the luxury housing market where often the only difference between what is being sold is the marketing itself. Like many goods in the luxury market, brand, perception and desirability are more important (and easier to manipulate) than intrinsic value, something the developers are well aware of. ‘Many residences can pamper you with luxury. Only the rarest few can refresh the soul,’ reads an advertisement for The Cascade, a tower built in Bangalore by Tata Housing, subsidiary of one of India’s largest multi-national conglomerates. What marketing enables there is to turn the architecture inside out, flipping traditional notions of public and private architecture as a sales tool. Increasingly, hoardings begin to function as a kind of architectural cross-section - where the Platonic ideal of the interior architecture, as an expression of lifestyle, is made publicly visible on the building’s exterior before it is built. Marketing showrooms, by contrast, take this inversion of public-private architecture to its logical conclusion by building the ‘lifestyle’ of construction hoardings in physical form. An apt example is the marketing suite of Neo Bankside, the £275m Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners development for the Duke of Westminster’s property company, Grosvenor. A stand-alone two-storey mini tower-cum-marketing suite, it is built using the same cross-bracing and exterior cladding as the development itself. Elsewhere in London, marketing suites for the mid-market have seen the conflation of the showhome with longer-lasting amenities. At the construction site for Bellway Homes’ Pembury Circus development, large arrows on the hoardings lead the way to an oddly shaped, double-height marketing suite and sales showroom. While you might assume that these poorly constructed showrooms finish up on the slag heap of sales-suite history, at Pembury Circus, the marketing suite is billed to be ‘transformed’ into a long-term community centre. Its marketing becoming architecture in the most literal sense.
While you might assume that these poorly constructed showrooms finish up on the slag heap of sales-suite history, at Pembury Circus, the marketing suite is billed to be ‘transformed’ into a long-term community centre. Its marketing becoming architecture in the most literal sense
If marketing suites and showhomes represent selling housing through the cracked lens of lifestyle, we can see the same thing happening elsewhere with the turn to statement architecture by luxury fashion brands and tech companies as a form of brand promotion. That Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim is now synonymous with the regeneration of Bilbao suggests that architecture and marketing were tethered long before the fashion pack caught on. Architecture has always been about creating narratives, which has perhaps made it all too easy to be co-opted by the narrative-weaving of marketing executives.
Consider luxury brand LVMH’s commissioning of a 54-metre-high UNStudio-designed flagship store in Japan, or the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris by Gehry (AR Nov 2014). The brand isn’t interested in a high-quality built environment: rather, LVMH understands how a futuristic architectural aesthetic can be used to peddle expensive perfumes and bags. Similarly, the Neo Bankside suite isn’t about selling the quality of design but a perceived lifestyle through carefully staged interiors perfectly pitched to appeal to the income, race, gender and tastes of the small group identified as target buyers.
Architecture and marketing have blurred into an unproductive muddle, detrimental to all but those who profit from uninformed consumer choices. But if marketing and its highly effective tactics could be harnessed for the good of the urban realm, they might become powerful allies for better cities. This would not be unprecedented: think of Bruno Taut’s utopian exhibition pavilions of the 1920s, which inspired a generation to build in glass - and which doubled as marketing suites for the German steel and glass industries. If we do not recalibrate the balance between commerce and public good, the future of design holds little more than lowest common denominator-driven showhome architecture for all.