In an economy controlled by the service sector, urban architecture is being influenced more heavily than ever by retail marketing.

Urban architecture has witnessed three major changes in the focus through the course of recorded human history. In the middle ages, urban centers were defined by the great cathedrals, built as monuments to faith. In the 20th century, cathedrals were eclipsed by skyscrapers, symbolizing the power of industry, which became the dominant feature of the urban landscape. Today, in an economy controlled by the service sector, urban architecture is being influenced more heavily than ever by retail marketing.

This new driving force is changing the way our cities look and feel. It will undoubtedly result in its own set of icons looked upon by future generations in a positive and equally critical way, just as cathedrals and skyscrapers are looked upon today. As designers operating within this new urban landscape, it is our responsibility to meet the need for branding with distinctive and creative approaches, lest our cityscapes become one big, nondescript billboard.

Taking it to the streets
As buildings proliferate in urban centers, it becomes increasingly difficult to make a noticeable impact on the urban skyline. For every Freedom Tower or Chicago Spire on the drawing-board, there are dozens of 40+ story buildings going up in urban areas barely attracting a second glance. More and more of the impact – in both new and old buildings – is being felt at street level.

One of the most striking examples of this changing of the guard is the opening, to much applause, of the glass-cube Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, in New York. One would argue that the typical passerby is much more likely to be impressed by this retail street-level gesture than the mid-century classic GM Building on which plaza it now sits.

And, the driver of this desire for impact is timeless: economics. Higher profile building equals higher cache, which translates to higher income potential for the real estate. This same principle has driven the exterior designs of urban towers. But rather than occurring over the course of several dozen stories, the design impact is concentrated at street-level, where people are likely to experience it more intimately. This gradual movement to the street creates a challenge for retailers who need strong marketing to compete in the visually intense urban streetscape.

We recently worked on a project for a financial services client planning to open a banking branch in Times Square. The location was right, the numbers were right, but the landlord would only consent to signing the lease on the condition that the bank would look like “a spectacular attraction”- not just another bank. The bank, on the other hand, needed this location to be an incredibly strong piece of marketing/branding to justify the investment in the pricey real estate.

Working almost as closely with the landlord as with the client, we created an intense, interactive, multimedia-saturated banking storefront that real estate owners felt would add to the “brand” of their building and our clients felt would convey their vision.

The end result of the retailers wanting to create more visibility and the landlords demanding more prominence in their retail tenants (and the carryover effects for their buildings) marks an increase in what we have begun to call “urban branding.”

“This building was designed by Stanford White…why would I want to ruin it by putting in a drug store?”

The responsibility of the designer or architect dealing with this new paradigm is to develop systems which create consistency within inconsistent landscapes. This is a tricky proposition. The commercial needs of the retailer generally demand creating and communicating a consistent experience. But that philosophy runs counter to one of the more appealing qualities of urban architecture: diversity.

Turn-of-the-century cast-iron buildings aside 1930’s deco skyscrapers situated between brand-new glass-and-steel condo complexes are more a rule than an exception in urban settings. This mix is daunting for a retail brand accustomed to replicating its signature image across the country.

And, as we have seen throughout the history of our cities, commercial interests ultimately win out over preservationist tendencies. It is for this reason that the role of the designer and architect is so critical. It is our responsibility to create systems that can be adapted to a city’s myriad new, old, and very old buildings, helping our clients walk the line between preservation and progress.

This delicate balance is as crucial to the preservation of the fabric of our urban areas as any historical preservation commission. As one of the landlords we recently worked with put it: “This building was designed by Stanford White…Why would I want to ruin it by putting in a drug store?” The answer, of course, is that if we can’t keep a building or an area commercially viable, it won’t stick around for long and will be torn down and replaced (think: Penn Station in New York) or left to decay until adopted in later years by a more creative generation (as has been happening with any number of formerly abandoned urban neighborhoods).

If only this were easy…

Urban branding is the art of powerfully breaking through the visual chaos and clutter of the streetscape in a downtown area. It applies primarily to the urban storefront. At the same time, the existing design work of the building where these communications elements are to be installed should not be abandoned.

The approach we take toward marrying architecture and branding elements depends on numerous factors, but we can simplify it into two categories: 1) sometimes we worry about the building and; 2) sometimes we don’t.

In some areas, on some buildings, we blend the two in such a way that the sign becomes the building and the building becomes the sign. Times Square is a prime example of this. In other cases, we have to work very hard to preserve the architectural integrity of the original building. Because, just as we understand that brands stand for something, we also believe that the buildings themselves stand for something, as do the neighborhoods in which they are situated.

As an example, we recently worked on a project of integrating a bank into the former headquarters of the “glazers union” located – as one would imagine – in a glass-faced building from the 1960’s, while simultaneously working on the planned roll-out of the same bank at two other sites: one in a 1930’s art deco hi-rise in the Financial District and another in a brand new glass and steel condominium complex on the Upper West Side. Alas, in urban environments the building typically is not meant to accommodate the brand, but rather the brand must work with the building while still enticing customers into the store.

Some of the ways that we have found to serve these seemingly opposed masters of architecture and branding is to develop branding systems that communicate a consistent experience without relying on a standardized application.

In the suburbs there is usually a clear separation between retail, residential, and commercial. The retailer often has the ability to communicate the brand through the standardized design of their building and communications, along with the placement of signage relative to the intended audience (i.e. – the pylon sign perpendicular to the street, the logo sign designed into the building over the entrance, or the merchandising signs in the windows facing the parking lot).

In the urban areas, where there is often no clear delineation between residential, commercial, or retail buildings, we have focused on expressing our clients’ brands outward from within their delineated space. If we can get something on the exterior which works in harmony with the building, that is excellent – but more often than not, we need to concentrate our efforts inside the storefronts. Our goal is to create powerful visual expressions that punch through the glass to communicate with passersby on the street without being at odds with the building. We try to take advantage of humans’ instinctive reactions to motion, light, color, and form rather than just relying on size, words, and imagery in order to do more with less.

This is just one approach, and there are many additional ways to go about solving this problem, each designed specifically for each client. While a bank may use bright lighting and multimedia to draw people in from the street, a book store may opt for signage that addresses customers from multiple lines of sight, communicating one thing to window shoppers and something else to people driving by at 35 miles per hour.

Urban Branding has already had considerable success in many areas, leading to entirely new urban experiences in Times Square, New York, and Shinjuku, Tokyo for example. Additional examples of a new urban branding experience include the Fifth Avenue shopping district – where multi-story storefronts dominate the streetscape – and the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.

Going forward, evidence suggests that this trend will continue. And, while not every neighborhood will turn into a Las Vegas Strip (at least we hope not), we will see an ever-increasing merger of architecture and retail branding in the fabric of our urban environments. There are certain to be outspoken critics of this movement towards urban branding, but savvy designers and architects see tremendous opportunity and a certain responsibility.