Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy is about how branding has colored the perception and function of architecture, and how architects can reverse this trend and become a catalyst for positive social change. Anna recently held a book signing at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York where she was interviewed by the Editor in Chief of Pin-Up Magazine Felix Burrichter. Anna talks about her current projects and emphasis on sustainable architecture.
+ The book is available on Amazon – Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy, and preview in author’s flickr page.
+ Interview between Anna Klingmann & Felix Burrichter
Anna Klingmann & Felix Burrichter: An Inquisitive Dialog AT THE STOREFRONT FOR ARCHITECTURE IN NEW YORK
Felix Burrichter: I think I want to start with something very simple by asking what exactly does the title of the book mean? What are “Brandscapes” and what exactly is an “experience economy”? I think it would be nice to start with the cover, and give a little insight into what that means, for the layman.
Anna Klingmann: OK, the cover. I’ll start with the subtitle: Architecture in the Experience Economy and what that implies. I think one explanation of the Experience Economy is that the sale of products is converted more and more into a comprehensive experience for the customer. If at the turn of the century and up until the 1950s a product was sold literally as a product, then, in the 1980s, that product was gradually combined with a service so people were more and more inclined to spend a lot of money because of the service that was attached to the product. Gradually, those products were combined with experiences, which also has to do with the burgeoning of the leisure society that we live in now, indicated by the massive increase of vacation resorts, the rise in international tourism, and also the need for short experiences has become burgeoning. Anything from a brief spa experience or products like Starbucks, which attach themselves to a whole environment where you inhale the Starbucks experience along with the cup of coffee that you buy for five dollars.
FB: You were a practicing architect, why did you decide to write this book?
AK: That’s another long story. I wrote the book actually at a time when architecture in many ways was detached from the general public and the needs of that public. We were into deconstruction and basically following our own ideology…
FB: What period are you talking about?
AK: The 1980s, which was the height of the deconstructivist movement and driven by influential figures like Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Zaha Hadid, and overall this marked a very ideological period that was essentially completely removed from the taste of the public. On the other side of the architectural spectrum, you had these big commercial firms that would construct architecture purely for the developer, essentially without any aesthetic value to speak of. So on the one hand, you have these avant-garde architects who would indulge themselves in abstract constructions of sorts, and on the other hand, you had very successful commercial firms that produced pretty nasty architecture overall, and so my idea at the time was how one might bring these two sides closer together. It was also interesting to me that that schism didn’t exist so much in product design—that separation from the vision of the user’s desire, but rather, products always take the user’s needs as a starting point and then create a vision out of that. For example the iPod, which is not about answering the user’s need in a mindless way, but about carrying that forth with a vision, and that’s why people of course are excited to buy it. However, by and large the same people were not excited about architecture because that emotional dimension was missing for most people.
FB: Did you start writing the book because you yourself as an architect wanted to be excited about architecture again, or did you start it with a theory about branding and architecture?
AK: I was always excited about architecture, but I never believed in ideology, and that was a time, I think following from modernism, where everybody was following an ideology. So I’m not an ideologist, and I think with the book I wanted to break through that schism of extreme commercialism on the one side, and the fetishization of architecture as a purely cultural object on the other side, bringing together high brow and low brow architecture.
FB: Was there a specific theory you wanted to express in writing when you started? Matthias [Hollwich] said you approached him about this in 2002, but I think you started thinking about this a lot earlier. I mean you mentioned studying in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and did you have a specific theory in mind, or was it a very organic process of writing your book and doing your research that you came to the awareness of branding and architecture?
AK: It was really about the power that architecture can have on people and places, and I felt that was really not exploited at that time, at all. By removing yourself from the public, what do you gain? I was interested in this idea that architecture can actually be a powerful catalyst, and in that sense, of course, also tap into commercialism, if you will, as a product. And so, architecture as a brand then has the potential to become a catalyst, which can raise the value of a city, a place, or a person. You know, wearing a Prada suit elevates your status in the eye of others, so architecture has that same power, as was first proven, in a way, by the Guggenheim, which basically resurrected a city which was in industrial decline, and made it a powerful magnet for investment, tourism, and so on, and spurred an entire redevelopment. That is the power of architecture as a brand.
FB: Let’s talk about New York. You mentioned the Guggenheim, and the cover of the book is an image of 6th avenue, which is very much the epitome of the 1960s, corporate curtain wall architecture, and you have a golf course, down the middle of 6th avenue. I mean, you’re never supposed to judge a book by its cover, but can you elaborate a little about this. What’s the idea behind this?
AK: The cover was inspired by Delirious New York, because if you look at the cover, Rem Koolhaas took that same shot, and this book, if it was influenced by anybody, it was really influenced by other architects that went against a predominant ideology and did phenomenological research in order to come up with a new way to approach architecture.
FB: Who for example? Who was an inspiration for the book?
AK: Obviously Corbusier with Towards a New Architecture.
FB: Which dates from?
AK: 1929. In many ways Brandscapes is sort a reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s principles and strategies. It also takes similar approach as Le Corbusier did by examining products and cities and distilling principles out of that. And then you have Venturi and Scott Brown who extensively analyzed Las Vegas in the 1970s. Their book Learning from Las Vegas is another example of breaking a predominant ideology, challenging what was viewed as being politically correct in the architectural world, and what was considered to be politically incorrect, i.e. populist at the same, and they incorporated their findings later into their own architectural approach. And more or less around the same time, Rem Koolhaas did his research into what he called “Manhattanism”, which is essentially a commercial interpretation of modernism, or American anti-modernism, which was despised by his modernist colleagues because it was not truthful, it was not honest, it was not politically correct. So again, Koolhaas was somebody who went for the politically incorrect. That was something I was very much interested in, and that, yet again, held true in the ‘80s. So, maybe to explain the cover, of course it also deals with the kind of transformational cities from the industrial era to the post-industrial era, from a system that was primarily focused on production, and which is now driven by consumption.
FB: Well it’s interesting one of the inspirations you say for the book was Le Corbusier who was considered by many one of the godfather’s of modernism. How would you say did Corbusier employ branding in his writing in Towards a New Architecture in the ‘20s?
AK: I didn’t look at Corbusier for branding. Branding for me is a new phenomenon that really started in, I would say, the 1980s. It really started from two-dimensional advertizing that then developed into three-dimensional experiential spaces on every level from Niketown, Starbucks, pop-up stores, so suddenly the brand took on a spatial dimension, and in terms of cities, architecture was used as a catalyst to spur an economic revitalization, or in the case of the Middle East and the Far East, to set an image in the global arena. In other words it’s a phenomenon that started in the 1980s and then really accelerated into something, which I would now call “brand urbanism”.
FB: Branding would sound to a lot of people like something bad. A lot of people would have a negative connotation, but I think the book is there to dispel that notion of branding as being something negative. Correct me if I’m wrong.
AK: I’m a sort of non-judgmental person, so for me, branding is neither good nor bad; branding is power, so it depends how and to what end do you use that power. I think it would be stupid not to use it. But again, it depends how it is used, to what end, and to whose benefit. If you choose to strengthen the identity of a specific place— and that’s something that we are trying to do with our own work, by pursuing a branding approach from the inside-out, which is something that the book discusses— and which capitalizes on the potential of local places and people. This approach counters the imposed homogeneity of an image-based star architecture, which is essentially branding from the outside-in and which is what most people associate with architectural brand. The import of a brand, a Zaha Hadid or a Norman Foster, leads to a homogenization of places, just like a Starbucks or a McDonalds, you have it all over the world, which in turn leads to a shortage of uniqueness. So the question is how one might turn that principle on its head and activate a sense of uniqueness from within?
FB: Can you name some examples of what you would consider successful branding? I mean, the opposite of what you just described, in New York.
AK: I think there’s a lot of successful branding that has taken place, but again, it depends on how you look at it. Branding, or architecture as a brand, in New York was specifically employed from 2000 to 2010 because of hedge fund brokers and people that made so much money that in fact the city had a shortage of luxury apartments. Hence, these people could not be satisfied by just a clean tower, and that’s when developers realized that branding could be of use to them. It started with the Richard Meier towers on the west side, which were built in 2005 that were sold at $2,000 per square foot of raw space. So obviously that kind of branding addresses a certain clientele, which in turn tells you how much architecture, or design, is linked with money. Suddenly you have a clientele that demands that higher standard, architecture as another luxury amenity. So is that good? Is it bad? I don’t know. It just indicates where New York is and for me it is interesting that there is a shortage of luxury apartments that cost $4 million, or more. I mean, to me this is unbelievable, so it’s a phenomenon.
FB: If it’s a phenomenological exercise, like you said in the book, what did you personally gain from writing it? I mean, other than a beautiful book, but for your personal practice. You also work as an architect, how were you able to employ your findings in your actual practice?
AK: It’s that whole idea to combine architecture and branding. What that really entails is that on the one hand you work with the developers i.e. the positioning of the whole development. It’s really all the strategic work that you influence, and along with that you can have more influence on the design, but with the end user in mind, the financial aspects in mind, and also what you want to bring to a place. It’s not design only, but rather the effect that that design produces, in terms of profit, in terms of added value to the public, and in terms of its contribution to a city where the city also benefits from that. That gives you a lot of power and a lot of leeway. It’s not just another pretty design in that way.
FB: Can you name some specific examples? I know you’ve worked here in New York and now in China, can you name some specific examples that you’re particularly happy with of your own work?
AK: The last few projects we did were actually in the Middle East. The last project we worked on is in Salalah, Oman, which is a very beautiful site near the ocean. It’s a joint venture between the government and a private developer, and the government has a site which is occupied by a large wetland, so the idea was to do a resort for eco-tourism combined with a sustainable residential community and an eco-park, where the whole development would become a synergistic destination both for local visitors—an educational experience for school children, families, and so on—as well as for tourists that go there from Europe and the other Arab countries, and make it a sustainable destination. Sustainability, again, as a more holistic concept that also incorporates social sustainability and cultural sustainability in the sense that it respects the local heritage, local materials, activates local labor, which then in turn is combined with environmental sustainability. For that project we got the environmental award last year, which made the developer very happy, and hopefully helps us to get the government approvals, which is always a drag.
FB: Is this a project you’ve been working on even before 2008? 2008 being the year the sort of sparkly developments in the Middle East crumbled, or is it something that is a conscious move in branding to reposition projects in the area?
AK: First of all, I don’t think the Middle East is crumbling. There’s one area that crumbled, and that was Dubai, and Dubai crumbled big time. But Oman in contrast is a very conservative, very slow moving country, and that’s actually what saved them in the whole process, if you will. And this isn’t a glittering development, but rather the antidote to that, and I think this is now what people are looking for, in my opinion, and that’s what I’m striving to do in my work—something authentic that is appropriate to a certain place or a certain region, so I think it fits the times in that respect.
FB: I’m really sad there’s no project in New York that comes to mind that fits all those points that you mentioned for the project in Oman.
AK: I don’t know, New York is its own place. I mean, there have been a lot of nice buildings designed, but, you know, it’s all for the same clientele. Often time’s people ask me ‘Oh does branding work for low-income housing?’ and I say ‘Absolutely’. It needs to be branded, but it’s not something that can be done easily in New York because developers tend to follow the same formulas. I think there have been some changes in that respect since Bloomberg, who has encouraged new and interesting design, so I guess we’ll see what happens.
FB: Would you recommend developers to read this book? Who is the target audience to be reading this, and what do you want them to take away from this?
AK: Well primarily it’s a book for architects, because it is a sort of hands-on book, and is not a theory book. I think architects on the whole cannot afford to criticize because they have to be proactive. In that sense, I think books that have been written by architects are also manuals, if you will, where you can benefit a lot in terms of strategy and new directions that you can actually put into practice. That’s what I was really hoping to do with this book. Of course there’s also the branding side, so branding people, marketing people are also benefit in terms of how branding can enhance architectural design and the positioning of a development, and then it has a cultural / urban dimension, which is interesting to the layperson as well. So I think those are basically the three main targets
FB: Thank you for this interview.
New York– Anna Klingmann presented the second edition of her groundbreaking book Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy at the Storefront for Art and Architecture on February 11, 2011 in a conversation with Felix Burrichter. Brandscapes is a critical look at the merging of branding and architecture and how this has shaped not only the way our cities look, but also how we interact with the world. The paperback edition is out now from MIT Press.
Anna Klingmann is the founder of Klingmann Architects and Brand Consultants, a full-service architecture and branding firm that focuses on sustainability and local cultures. Based in New York City, Klingmann works with clients around the world to create unique spaces that forge a meaningful connection with users.
Felix Burrichter is the Editor of Pin-Up Magazine, a biannual magazine for architectural entertainment.
The Storefront for Art and Architecture is a nonprofit organization that supports innovation in art and architecture.
+ Klingmann Architects and Brand Consultants‘s work on +MOOD