Building Brands : In Conversation with Grace Ong Yan

Grace Ong Yan, author of the upcoming 'Building Brands: Corporations and Modern Architecture', talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the inspirations for her book, the peculiarities of corporate architecture, and the keys to successful branding through buildings...


Pietro Belluschi (left), design architect, F.O. Haas (centre), client, and Alec Ewing (right), architect of record,
in front of the Röhm and Haas Building, c.1963. 
Courtesy of Science History Institute, Röhm & Haas Company Archives

Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.


MRG: How did the idea for the book, Building Brands, first come about? And can you tell us about any surprising discoveries or particular challenges during the research process?

GOY: The topic of architectural branding grew out of an interest in how design and architecture engage people and shape human activities. I became involved with branding as a practicing architect and interior designer at Gensler New York. Together in an interdisciplinary team, we designed branded environments for companies like Toys R Us, International Center for Photography, and Bally. I was immediately fascinated by the practice of branding as an alternate lens of design. I found brand design to be in some ways more creative, interdisciplinary, and service-oriented than the world-renowned architecture firms that I had worked in previously. Architecture firms, especially those lead by famous architects, approach design as the development of a signature design. By comparison, I found that with brand design, the script was flipped—the process was not a realization of an architect’s vision, but about coming up with new design ideas to define the client's identity. This invigorating and very freeing experience left deep impressions on me. As I embarked on my doctoral studies in architectural history and theory with these insights, I felt I could offer a unique perspective.

The greatest challenge of researching corporations is accessing their archives as they generally do not welcome outside researchers. Yet this is what I needed to do in order to bring a new interdisciplinary lens to architectural history by seeking to answer my initial question: Did the clients seek advertising and branding through the architecture that they commissioned? For my research on how architecture served as branding, it was imperative to reveal the company’s motivations about the architecture it commissioned. I quickly discovered that the best way to research a company’s papers is to study defunct companies. When a company goes out of business or gets bought out by another company, its extant archival papers— inter-office memos, board meeting minutes, letters between clients and architects, annual reports, employee magazines, in short, all the documents it leaves behind, end up in a publicly accessible repository. What I unearthed from the abundant Philadelphia Saving Fund Society and Röhm and Haas archives were just such fine-grained documents that informed and supported my hunch that architecture in the form of corporate headquarters served their clients as far more than offices to house their employees, but as important promotional tools and as a communication medium to the public.

‘Welcome to the Home of Johnson’s Wax’, pamphlet for visitors.
The graphics depict the stylised dendriform columns. Pamphlet, c.1939. 
Courtesy of SC Johnson. Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.

One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest clients, Herbert F. Johnson,
photographed in the S.C. Johnson & Son Administration Building.
This 1956 ad for Western Union Telegrams depicts the company president
with S.C. Johnson & Son’s most successful products, including Glo-Coat.
Courtesy of SC Johnson. Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.

A leasing brochure boasted ‘superb office space in the handsome new
Röhm and Haas Building under construction where the most exciting
urban renewal is going forward . . .’ c.1963. 
Courtesy of Science History Institute, Röhm & Haas Company Archives

Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.


MRG: In your own experience, and in the case studies you have chosen for the book, how do architects and designers balance the need to remain true to their own style with the task of respecting and enhancing the client’s branding/image? How does this compromise (or is that the wrong word?) play out?

GOY: Instead of a “compromise,” I like to think that a collaboration between business and design can result in something innovative and unexpected. In the best scenarios of architectural branding, the architect’s vision and client identity merge. For example, in the story of the PSFS Building, the forward-looking architects and conservative client certainly sparred on the design direction. But the result, which took both visions into account, was truly unique and offered a rich and nuanced modernism. While all four of these buildings are superb examples of architectural branding, it was important to show the varied ways in which the architects’ vision did and did not evolve with client collaboration. There are instances in which the architect’s vision dominated the project, and there are other instances in which the architect and client collaborated productively. This is where I found opportunities to debunk the Fountainhead/Howard Roark as hero-architect myth. Even though Frank Lloyd Wright absolutely fashioned himself in this way, and SOM also realized a largely architect-driven vision, more collaborative processes in architectural branding are found in the PSFS and the Röhm and Haas histories. Today, we understand the singular aspect of an architects’ vision above all as a quite dated view of modern architecture history. This ideal has become untenable today as more interdisciplinary and collaborative processes have become more relevant, not only in architectural branding practice but in all design disciplines. New histories of architecture from the mid to late twentieth century reflect this shift away from the hero-architect and towards collaborative practice.

The historical example of collaborative working practices is important in considering how today’s architecture and design firms operate. Interdisciplinary collaboration is democratic in nature and values the expertise of each team member. Unfortunately, in architecture firms with large building projects that can take many years, the process is very production heavy and involves much routinized work like drafting and red-lining design changes in which team members don’t contribute their unique knowledge. Instead, the process in brand design consultancies is more agile as seen in practices like Frog Design Inc., IDEO, and Imagination where methods like brainstorming, leveraging team-member strengths, and encouraging innovation are prevalent. Architectural practice, in branding and in general would benefit from taking cues from these more egalitarian techniques.


MRG: The chapter headings give us a clue as to the unique points of each building: Sign, Fame, Form, Material. How and why did you decide and narrow down your focus to the four key examples in the book? And do you have a view on which of these elements (or indeed which building) might be most effective as an example of architectural branding?

GOY: When I chose the case studies, I looked for diversity and variety in the case studies—that each would inform us about a unique way in which the architecture served as branding for that company. Each term tells us about a specific design strategy of architectural branding: the rooftop sign of the PSFS Building; the fame of Frank Lloyd Wright to publicize S.C. Johnson and Son; the striking form of Lever House associated with Lever Brothers, and the material of Plexiglas used throughout the Röhm and Haas headquarters. Each design strategy emerged as I researched and analyzed the specific ways in which each corporate headquarters communicated through its architectural expression. While each building offered more complex branding strategies, these were the bold, identifying ones.

Fame and Form are most effective with grabbing attention as architectural branding. However, Sign and Material are also rich case studies that show us how the collaboration of architecture and business created new and innovative designs. While they are all effective architectural branding strategies, each case study offers certain nuances that appeal to different audiences. The strategies of Fame and Form are the most audacious and have broad commercial appeal. We see this the most in recent history with examples like starchitects being hired to design high-priced condominiums. Similarly, the phenomenon of conspicuous and sexy architectural forms reaches the broadest audiences when we think of the effects of the Guggenheim Bilbao. Analogously, we see this today with how influencers promote brands on social media today.

While the architectural branding strategies of Sign and Material are less prevalent today, they are in some ways more intriguing, and ripe for further research. For example, the rich history of the integration of lettered signs and architectural forms is discussed in the book and offers hints that there are untapped contemporary design possibilities in this direction. As well, the interdisciplinary nature of signs and architecture between architects, graphic designers, and sign fabricators, is another area of potential research. For the strategy of incorporating material into architectural branding, a number of case studies in the post-World War II era are productive areas for further research.

György Kepes designed fifteen Plexiglas chandeliers for the Röhm and Haas building. The upper portion of the chandelier was a light box,
which cast light through the multitudinous 2,087 Plexiglas
rods of differing widths and lengths.
Courtesy of Science History Institute, Röhm & Haas Company Archives.

Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.


MRG: In Building Brands you use terms such as ‘experiential and emotional’ to describe the effects of well-designed architectural branding – can you tell us a little more about this concept?

GOY: Good branding makes emotional and experiential connections with its audiences. In Building Brands, I build upon this truth of contemporary branding practice by expanding it to the three-dimensional discipline of architecture. We don’t often think of having emotions towards buildings and spaces, but just like hearing an old familiar song will bring back specific memories, certain places, buildings, and spaces elicit strong emotions from their inhabitants. My intention of bringing the architects’ and designers’ point of view to branding practice is to enrich branding as three-dimensional and spatial. There is an abundance of architectural insight about how to engage occupants through design that can not only elevate branding practice, but enable clients to see their architectural projects beyond being merely profitable. The way architects and designers create experiential spaces is far more authentic and celebratory of the human spirit than the so-called experiential branding of places like Rainforest Café and Disneyworld which speaks to the kind of stage-set urbanism of the film, The Truman Show.

While it cannot be denied that theme parks and entertainment venues engage their audiences on a superficial level, in Building Brands I offer architectural case studies as an extra-disciplinary source for branding. In the PSFS building, the visitor moves through a series of impressionable spaces once they enter from the subway or the street. Architectural space was specifically calibrated to emotionally and experientially engage the occupant from the anticipatory feeling of moving slowly up the escalator within a vertical entryway space, to the awe-inspiring arrival in a voluminous banking hall filled with rectilinear and curvilinear forms of contrasting tints and shades of light and material. The architectural case studies of Building Brands elicit a wide spectrum of human emotions, including anticipation, happiness, awe, surprise, joy, and trust, among others. Architecture evokes specific feelings which occupants then associate with the brand.

PSFS banking hall interior, 1932. 
Philadelphia Saving Fund Society and Western Savings Bank
photograph collection, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.

Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.


MRG: You also argue that there are important humanist aspects to consider in relation to corporate modernism – which have so far been largely neglected. What does this mean for the discipline of ‘corporate architecture’?

GOY: In Building Brands, I show that there are creative opportunities as designers in corporate architecture and branding. In a way, it’s a fascinating paradox: that within the rational, systematic, and profit-driven nature of corporations, there is a softer, humanist agenda vis a vis branding. Branding elicits human interaction and emotion beyond the traditional branding of two-dimensional graphics, with the expanded field of architecture and interior design. Architectural branding is a common interest which brings together business-minded clients and design-oriented architects. While the design is meant to appeal to consumers, the interdisciplinary exchange offers new insights that could reveal opportunities to deepen the humanist agenda of the corporation. I am suggesting that architectural branding could be the switch that humanizes the corporation from the inside out.

Lever House. 
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
Gottscho-Schleisner Collection.
Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.


MRG: Do you see the future of ‘branding-through-architecture’ as changing dramatically after the Corona-virus pandemic? Will office spaces and headquarters still be beacons of brand identification or has this space somehow moved on-screen/online?

GOY: The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated remote work from home- a phenomenon that was already a growing pattern before. But on a deeper level, consider how this has changed how we interact with each other and institutions. As a result of stay-at-home orders and lowering our chances of catching COVID-19, we now interact with most other humans through the screens of our computers. To say the least, this is an unsatisfying way to engage with people but we must make do. In Building Brands, I explain how institutions communicate through architecture and design to their audiences, and how those audiences receive those messages and brands. As I detail in the book, architecture becomes the mediator for those messages. Actual three-dimensional and spatial architecture offer rich, nuanced, and spontaneous experiences that cannot be equally replicated through a screen. In the book, I reference Jane Jacobs’ championing of vibrant urban environments like New York City through “face-to-face meetings,: “the shared Martini,” and the “subtle sizing up”…the kinds of micro-scaled but enormously important social activities that enable and enhance business dealings. Some of these may be accomplished over video conferencing, but they lack the grit, liveliness, and spontaneity of real-time life. The coronavirus pandemic does not change the need for real human interactions and of architecture as branding.

View of urban life on Park Avenue.
Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images .

Reproduced in 'Building Brands' by Grace Ong Yan.

While traditional branding, defining identity through two-dimensional media, can continue to reach audiences through online media, architectural branding needs brick-and-mortar construction with new prototypes and scenarios. Companies should seize opportunities to commission architectural interventions specifically designed for the needs of people during the pandemic. They might be the construction of open-air pavilions for human interactions from remote working to school pod meetings to safe areas for socializing. As just one example, the design of the pavilions could serve as architectural branding, and would provide amenities for the community in a time of need. This is an example of what I urge corporations to do through architectural branding— that as we consider the next era of business, they must look beyond self-promotion, and take on the causes that people care about and that benefit humanity.



Grace Ong Yan's Building Brands will be released on 30th October and is now available to order from our website HERE. 

Hardback • 240 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
37 colour illustrations and 86 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848224070 • Publication: October 30, 2020


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