The true brand architects

Frank Gehry (standing) and Peter Arnell have long professed that a marketer's building should also be its best billboard. Corporate America might finally be ready to listen.

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About a decade ago, Warner Bros. executives approached Frank Gehry about transforming the Times Square building famous for the ball that drops every New Year's into a flagship building for the entertainment company. Working under restrictions from both the media conglomerate and New York City, Mr. Gehry had to find a way to preserve a facade that was more than half consumed by billboards. He conceived a kind of cuckoo clock that had iconic Warner Bros. characters like Superman and Bugs Bunny pop out of a mesh facade. Once a day, for instance, Elmer Fudd would shoot Bugs, setting off a plume of smoke reminiscent of the old Camel billboard, and every night, from midnight to about 6 a.m., the sound of the characters snoring would be heard from the building. But the idea was never adopted.

"I made a model that moved and puffed smoke and snored and we lit it beautifully," said Mr. Gehry. "Terry Semel and Bob Daly [then co-chairmen-CEOs of Warner] came to the office and were ecstatically happy with it. They congratulated me and took pictures of it and left. And I never saw them again. That same year those guys did a movie called 'The Postman' for $100 million, which was the price tag I had proposed for the building. 'The Postman' didn't do so well."

Ten years later, much has changed. Mr. Gehry, already an elite architect with award-winning buildings such as the Disney Concert Hall under his belt, only further cemented his role in history with the completion of Guggenheim Bilbao. Meanwhile, American corporations, perplexed by a rapidly changing media environment, are looking for ways-besides the increasingly ignorable 30-second spot-to engage consumers with their messages. Architecture and design, with its power to turn an assemblage of building materials into a storytelling experience not that different from brand-building, has become one of the most powerful options available to them.

Considering Mr. Gehry's track record, it's a safe bet that his Warner Bros. creation would have had longer legs than "The Postman," a post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner vehicle that stands as one of Hollywood's great all-time bombs. Not only would Mr. Gehry's playful facade have driven foot traffic for the ground-floor store, it would have put the company in a small pantheon of corporate interests that have successfully used architecture to say something meaningful-or, as Mr. Gehry would put it, tell a story-about their company.

So, with the design-driven success of Target, Apple, Motorola and Nike in recent years, is it once again time for the Frank Gehrys of the world, many of whom have been resistant to working commercial messaging into their designs, to talk to corporate America about different ways companies can manage brands in the physical space? Mr. Gehry thinks so.

In an August interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Gehry and advertising and design guru Peter Arnell-"two good friends who trust each other noodling around with ideas," as the former puts it-gave a glimpse of their ambitions to make architecture more a part of the marketing vernacular, something they plan to achieve with an old-school advertising tool: the billboard.

"Building facades are becoming billboards," Mr. Gehry said. "There's an electronic component to the facade of the building that's inevitable now. Years ago, you wouldn't have thought so. Venturi did think so, and he saw it coming. Now it's just matter of fact. "

Venturi is Robert Venturi, a Philadelphia-based architect and co-author of "Learning from Las Vegas," a 1972 meditation on sprawl that celebrated the simulacra of the Vegas strip as a distinct part of American culture, thinking that bucked modernist trends that were prevalent at the time. It was an incredibly prescient book that foreshadowed today's Times Square and the Ginza in Tokyo, two areas that loom large in Mr. Gehry's thinking today.

In revisiting the billboard, they're not, of course, talking about the mundane signage that clutters the landscapes all over this country. What they have in mind are the electronic billboards that allow precise calibration of images and messages, allowing for a high degree of control over the way those images and messages interact with the environment or context of which they're a part.

The question, as Mr. Gehry said, is: "How do you transition commercial branding aspects of the world to the facade of the building? How do you do that with dignity and maintain the character called architecture? How do you stay in architecture and have electronic, changing facades?"

There is precedent for the marriage of architecture and commerce, even though, as Mr. Gehry admits: "The closer you get to a profit-making venture, which is most of the buildings built in our world, the issue of communicating ideas is irrelevant. Mostly. There are exceptions." For those, think of the Chrysler Building in New York, the art deco masterpiece meant to showcase the automaker's might during the Great Depression. A favorite of Mr. Gehry's is the Inland Steel Building in Chicago, finished in 1957.

But when it comes to playing with electronic messaging, different examples pop to mind. He frequently turns to Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar in Barcelona, Spain, a reinforced-concrete structured tower with a glass-and-steel dome that serves as a home for a municipal water company. The facade is built with aluminum panes in 25 colors and 4,500 lights that wash the building in color at night. "It becomes an electronic painting at night," said Mr. Gehry. "It doesn't sell anything. It sells its own existence."

However, Messrs. Gehry and Arnell are talking about selling more than just existence. They're trying to build brands-not just fashion light shows-and that means creating experiences that are themselves destinations. In advertising speak, it translates into one-off projects, or uniques.

"That takes efficiency, in the early days of this thinking, out of the equation because it's easy to take one image and put it up on 4,000 billboards," said Mr. Arnell. "We see a lot of creativity in terms of dimensionalizing brand messaging outdoors, except that it's in formatted media. A unique message begins a dialogue between the architect, the brand, the advertising and the customer."

Architecture, under this model, avoids slipping into yet another mass medium, shoving easily ignored, untailored messages at millions in the hope that a few of them will stick.

The pair can't yet point to actual work that exemplifies their thinking, save for mention of an ongoing "competition." But the Gehry- designed project that lies just below many of these ideas is the $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, N.Y., a 22-acre project that includes a sports arena, both residential and office buildings, and a hotel. Because the project will significantly alter the physical, economic and cultural shape of Brooklyn, a radically diverse and quickly changing New York City borough that prides itself on organically grown neighborhoods, Atlantic Yards has been intensely controversial.

The key to making the development work will be respect for the context. Mr. Gehry, who was born in the borough, has designed the plans with traditional materials, brick and stone, in mind. The opportunity for interactive architecture that's tailored to the neighborhood and can be synced to its rhythm is obvious. Imagine if the seizure-inducing flash of Times Square could be shut down after hours.

When asked if the Brooklyn project will embody any of this thinking, Mr. Gehry only offered a long sigh and said, "We don't know yet."

Mr. Arnell is more expansive: "The hope is that whether it be Brooklyn or any other projects we're looking at, that advertisers, developers, and owners of buildings will start to see the importance of an architect in managing and creating the brand's messaging."

However these ideas are executed, they represent an argument for more than just the sponsorship of high-profile buildings. They speak of something deeper, something closer to a brand and a building's meaning.

"If you started to do an audit and put the really important things of a brand in an architect's hands, there is a potential that the building could respond to the brand's issues or messaging," said Mr. Arnell. "It goes from a decorative or signage application into an experiential expression."

For a man of his age, Mr. Gehry is stunningly of the moment. While he worries about the loss of drawing talent as young designers take to computers, he does not mourn it. And he does not fret about the loss of some sacrosanct notion of what an architect is or should be. For, after all, what Messrs. Gehry and Arnell are thinking of is a new role for the architect.

"My profession would look down at some of the things we're talking about," he said. "They'd talk about commercialization and denigration of the role of the architect. There would be those holier-than-thou academics or historians who would say this is not a lofty professional direction. But the world around you is changing so fast and I could ignore it. I'm 77 and I could just forget about it."

But that's not Mr. Gehry's way. Instead, along with Mr. Arnell, he's going to noodle until he's worked out how branding and building can become one.
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