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Sid Lee Architecture: Branding Beyond the Surface

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Brand creativity can be communicated in many ways, from the swoop of cursive in a logo to the faint silhouette of the back of a character's head in a commercial. But strong architectural design can be as indicative of a brand's identity as anything else.

Jean Pelland and Martin Leblanc, co-founders of Sid Lee Architecture.
Jean Pelland and Martin Leblanc, co-founders of Sid Lee Architecture.

Sid Lee Architecture was birthed from just that insight. The Montreal-based company launched in 2009 as an extension of creative-services firm Sid Lee. Helmed by architects Jean Pelland and Martin Leblanc, who were co-founders of the Nomade Architectural Firm, Sid Lee Architecture combines branding with pure architectural know-how so the physical manifestation of a brand's identity is just as solid as its advertising.

Mr. Pelland and Mr. Leblanc both studied their craft at the University of Montreal and started working together as they entered design competitions in the mid-1990s. In 1999, they quit their jobs to start Nomade, where they worked on projects such as 100 Rue McGill, a conversion of a warehouse into residential units, and were one of the first to integrate 3-D tools into traditional hand-drawn design methods.

In 2006, they worked with Jean-Francois Bouchard, the co-founder of Sid Lee, on the agency's pitch for Adidas, a "confidential" project that was "possibly years ahead of its time," according to Mr. Bouchard. Although that project was eventually shelved, the 2006 meeting got Mr. Bouchard to realize that the two groups were complementary. "What we loved about the guys is that they are committed to creativity and innovation and in translating this to immersive environments," said Mr. Bouchard. For Sid Lee, adding architecture to its portfolio meant bringing depth to its "ability to creative immersive experiences for brands."

In 2009, Mr. Leblanc and Mr. Pelland left Nomade to join Sid Lee in a unique partnership that created Sid Lee Architecture, which stands alone as an architecture company that has its own clients, but also works on construction and design projects for ad agency clients. Nomade no longer exists; many of the team followed Mr. Leblanc and Mr. Pelland to SLA.

"We are not doing architecture as a branding thing," said Mr. Leblanc. "We're doing it as a serious architecture project, and we keep our own identity and professionalism."

What makes SLA different from regular architecture companies is that it merges with the commercial creative world for an interdisciplinary process. "We realized that we could create richer experiences by bringing in different disciplines," said Mr. Leblanc. "We have discussions now with brand strategists and copywriters, so we can produce a different type of architecture."

Inside Red Bull's Amsterdam headquarters.
Inside Red Bull's Amsterdam headquarters.

At Nomade, Mr. Leblanc said they had lacked that kind of multidisciplinary talent. "We want to merge architecture with commercial art so spaces are user-centric," he said. That is probably similar to how other architecture firms would describe themselves, but Mr. Leblanc said they can achieve that vision more easily. During the ideation processes, SLA will use the communication and branding insights from Sid Lee, then apply those to their designs. The media side of Sid Lee is rarely used.

That type of thinking is evident in the company's work for Red Bull's Amsterdam headquarters, which they converted from an old shipbuilding factory on the north side of the city's port.

The setting of the project is industrial, but inside it's all art -- uniquely shaped ceilings and awkwardly structured walls are combined with fun paint patterns and lively accessories.

Some projects come from Sid Lee, while some are all SLA. The company's design for the flagship store for Videotron came from the agency, which was working on the Canadian telecom company's branding and identity for two years before it became an architecture project. "For that, we had to translate that set identity into a space," said Mr. Leblanc.

Other projects, like Amsterdam's Ajax Football Club, came straight to them. The club is an experiential museum designed as an extension of Amsterdam's central square, Rembrandtplein. The club hadn't won anything in recent years, but wanted to communicate what it had brought to the world of soccer in general. So the design honors the many soccer greats that got their start at Ajax.

The company is now working on the lobby of the Place Des Arts in Montreal, the huge performance center that is one of the focal points for the city's bustling culture scene. The two-office company (one outpost is in Amsterdam, because Mr. Leblanc said, the architecture scene in Europe is huge, despite the recession) has 28 people, with 25 of them in Montreal. It hires architects, but those with special skills.

"We won't hire a digital-media artist, but we'll hire an architect who can program," he said. "We won't hire an illustrator but bring in someone who likes to draw."

Check out some of Sid Lee's other projects in the slideshow below.

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