A brand for London

"Branding, it could be said, is the greatest gift commerce has given to culture"

So said Wally Olins, on the blog of Saffron Consultants, recently appointed to create the brand for London.

The Brand for London nearly didn't happen, At the judging proces of the pitches, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, seemed to undergo an attack of the why bothers. "Why are we doing this?" he allegedly asked, perhaps mindful of the inevitable backlash that will result when Londoners find out what they've got for their £650,000.

The thinking behind creating a Brand for London is to create something that can stand as a defining emblem of the city, which is currently under siege from a barrage of logos, as deftly illustrated here by Michael Johnson of agency Johnson Banks.

London logos

The problem with a Brand for London is similar to the problem that benights the NYC brand for New York City - there is already a 'default' emblem in place. For New York, the incumbent is the I heart NY logo created by Milton Glaser back in the 1970's for the tourist board. In London, the London Transport roundel icon, the blue line though the red circle, occupies a similar place in peoples affections.

I love NY vs NYC

There is a very real chance, that rather than providing a single point of identity for London, it will just be one other to add to the morass, along with the 2012 logo that still divides public opinion.

As with all these branding exercises, the fee inevitably becomes a point of contention, the Evening Standard headlines write themselves, £650,000 to create a squiggle that a child could do. But the truth is the designers have got their work cut out. One of the agencies pitching, Moving Brands, whose work I admire greatly, tried to build on the concept of a 'crowd-sourced' identity and created a blog to engage users. The problem is that pretty much all of the designs submitted by users sucked beyond belief.


Here's a selection of city brands from around the world.

City brands

I amsterdam

Belfast brand

It is rather disturbing to note that Saffron previously created the moronic Belfast branding. Is it me or does this look dated already?

I like the way that the "I amsterdam" logo is created as a physical entity, a functional typographical object, and scaled to the size of public sculpture for tourists to climb on, distributed via a thousand digital photographs.

Lastly, here is the new identity for Melbourne, Australia, to show that sometimes these things do come off.

Melbourne identity

Why do cities feel the need for brand identities? I think much of it is to do with the mediation of modern life. Cities are dissemination, distributed, experienced remotely much more frequently than physically. Cities compete with each other for attention, kudos and status in order to attract investment, visitors and to host events. Style mags create league tables of desirable cities (cf Monocle's Liveable Cities guide), or Richard Florida's Creative Cities guide.

All are operating within a decreasing attention span, where an instant visual shorthand can stand in lieu of the real place. This has progressed from architectural and objective stereotypes (the red bus, the houses of parliament), to stylised maps, to the virtual, the purely symbolic, the logo.

Fake Omaha

One day, all cities will be rendered as logo. The next step is for the sign to break free of its signifier. Like Fake Omaha, Mega-City 1, or Eden-Olympia, let us create brands for cities that do not exist.


Learning from Niketown

"I like Nike, but wait a minute. The neighbourhood supports, so put some money in it."
- Public Enemy, Shut Em Down

Nike Scorpion

In the 18 years since Chuck D rapped those lines, Nike has moved far ahead of the curve in developing an advanced urban marketing strategy that seeks to connect their brand with neighbourhoods in cities across the world.

In a prior post, Branding the Boroughs, I mentioned the Nike Scorpion KO campaign as a example of marketeers refiguring the city in terms of their brand. Via the web site of creatives Denesh and Anuj I've finally been able to find some more images of it.

The 2002 Scorpion KO campaign was centred around a cage-soccer tournament of 3-a-side, first-goal wins, an extension of a TV advert, directed by Terry Gilliam, and fronted by Eric Cantona.

Teams across London competed in a number of regional heats (at venues rebranded Nikeparks) before competing in a final at a rebranded Millennium Dome (Nikepark @ the Dome). The campaign was 'taken' to the streets of London by giving each borough in London the identity of a species of scorpion, eg Greewich Giants, Bexley Devils, Enfield Tigers, each with its own signature moves, style of attack etc, and complete with text message/ sig file icons. This was then reinforced via traditional outdoor advertising - bus shelters and billboards, with more guerilla forms such as stencil graffiti/ flyposting, adding an edgy ("you are now in Emperors' territory") mythological layer across the city.

Nike Scorpion

Nike Scorpion

Nike Scorpion

In connecting young people with an urban identity reinforced on the streets, and via online and mobile messaging, Nike created a powerful way of representing the city both with space and with signs, a 'Situationist' urban realm.

According to the Wikipedia page:
"Following the airing of the commercials, in June 2002 an estimated 1 to 2 million children competed in matches following the Scorpion KO rules in about a dozen cities worldwide, including London (in the Millennium Dome), Beijing, and Buenos Aires.

Nike considered the campaign a success, with Nike president Mark Parker commenting, "This spring's integrated football marketing initiative was the most comprehensive and successful global campaign ever executed by Nike."'

Nike Scorpion

In his book 'Who's afraid of Niketown', author Friedrich Von Borries explores the lengths to which Nike go to transform urban space into brand space. Bart Lootsma, in his preface, writes:

"The new brand city described by Borries ... is a dynamic city, a setting for organizing 'situations.' In order to reach even the smallest target groups, the media will be deployed in this city far more interactively than they are today. Streets, fallow zones, interstitial spaces and ruins will play essential roles in the brand name city. These spaces will not be overlaid with advertising in classical fashion, but will instead become the objects of discriminating marketing strategies. Here initiatives from below that devise new leisure activities will be instrumentalized, as will critical actions and political demonstrations."

Borries considers the role of architecture in the 'brand city':

"In recent years the actual task of architecture has changed radically. The illusion machine of marketing has rediscovered the reality: architecture is now intended to convey the identity of a brand, is now expected, as an experiential realm, to be an element in brand communication."

Though focussed on Nike's activities in Berlin, almost identical campaigns have run in other cities across the world, including London, with events such as North versus South runs, recoding the city as a competitive space, with clearly defined winners and losers.

Borries continues:

"is it the future of the city to be the remix of an advertising spot? The brand makes the space available in which our social relations are mirrored. With Nike, this is the image of the combative city, of a remorseless battlefield of identity. The city reproduces and elucidates our competitive society. Only as an explanatory model can this advertising-becomes-space reach its target group... In the future experience-oriented city, the brand is a crucial agent, if not the paramount one. In that city, the brand becomes a partner in all forms of planning, the determinant of development trends. Precisely to the degree that economic decisions replace political ones, the brand displaces the primacy of the political in the shaping of the city. Niketown is not called that simply because it is a department store for sporting goods, but instead because Nike claims to transform the city it inhabits into a Nike city."

We have as much to learn from Nike as Venturi, from Niketown as Levittown.


Branding the boroughs 2

hex london

In Felix Barber and Ralph Hyde's superb book London as it might have been, we can read of a Victorian plan to change the structure of the London boroughs, part of a plan to prevent overcharging by cab drivers.

London as it might be

"In the middle of the 19th Century a slightly fanatical Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries published a scheme for an hexagonal London".

".. John Leighton suggested that the old borough boundaries should be altered to conform to a honeycomb pattern. Within a five-mile radius of the General Post Office all the sprawling, differently sized boroughs were to become hexagonal-shaped areas, 2-miles across. There were 19 altogether with the City in the centre of the honeycomb. Each hexagonal borough would be identified by a letter, and the letter as well as a number would be painted or cut out of tin-plate to be visible day and night on lamp-posts at every street corner."

It's an inspired idea, and one that can also serve as the starting point for the Rebranding of the Boroughs.

John Leighton's hexagonal map only extended about 6 miles from the centre of London, but it's a relatively process to extend more concentric rings of hexes, turning the Great Wen into a setting for a boardgame, Settlers of Catan or Squad Leader re-imagined upon London.

hex london hex london

With a clear demarcation between boroughs, it becomes much easier to define transition from one border to another. Unlike the Japanese municipal flags, whose forms are symbolic images and katakana, for London a more typographic treatment was chosen. Inspired by HAL in 2001, each borough is given a 3-letter code for a consistent visual identity.

hex london hex london

Now the jumble of logos and graphical devices can be replaced with a consistent, uniform identity system. The only change is to rename the borough of Haringey as Highgate to avoid the clash with Harrow.

Within each borough, each individual hex can also be given it's own identity, further reinforcing the idea of London as a series of villages. And you could zoom in, each larger 2 mile hex could be divided into a grid of smaller hexes.

hex london


Branding the boroughs

chiyoda flag

Neo Hackney

Last week I popped along to the exhibition 'London's Towns' at the Building Centre in London. Subtitled "Shaping the Polycentric City", (download catalogue here) the exhibition looked at developments proposed across the London boroughs, as each looks to assert an identity within the larger metropolis.

It seems that every borough needs a masterplan these days. The focus of many boroughs' displays was to highlight their efforts to develop as a standalone 'hub': a retail, cultural and commercial centre that could resist the gravitational pull of Central London. Some, such as Greenwich, Croydon and Stratford see their future as a city within a city.

'London's Third City', Croydon boldy proclaims, neglecting the fact that Heathrow can already be considered such. But you have to give Croydon credit for its gutsy vision, (already attracting admirers in Paris), a colourful masterplan by Alsop, and by far the swankiest model on display that understandably was given centre stage.



Inevitably, with the exhibition sponsored by the various London Boroughs themselves, there was little critical analysis of the visions presented. Is the city becoming more fragmented? Or is there a framework emerging for a more coherent whole, within which each of the boroughs has a chance to establish a unique character?

It struck me that all the boroughs were seeking to establish an identity, and yet a compelling graphic rebranding would be a far stronger way of doing this than through some badly conceived urban masterplanning.

I recently discovered that every city and ward in Tokyo has its own flag. What's more, they're awesome. Each is unique, but there is also a visual consistency and pattern to them, a typology, that lends them great overall coherence.

Tokyo City Flags

Tokyo Ward Flags

Compare this with the logos of the assorted London boroughs, a truly horrific collection of bad clip art, worse typography, pointless squiggles, and the occasional moronic slogan ("The London Borough", "putting residents first", "the brighter borough").

London Boroughs

Does London have the boldness to implement such a branding exercise? I think it would help give residents of each of the boroughs a strong sense of identity, some team colours so to speak. I'm reminded of the Scorpion football campaign by Nike back in 2002, where each borough of London was given a name, eg Enfield Tigers, Merton Jungles, Bromley Boxers (?), and then teams from the boroughs would battle it out in a first-goal-wins knockout tournament at the Millennium Dome.

As in many things, the marketeers are a long way ahead of the urbanists.

The secret life of Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens

(images by Flickr user moreikura)

Robin Hood Gardens, like Euston Arch before it, will take its secret to its grave.

Last week, 'architecture minister' Margaret Hodge sounded the death knell for Robin Hood Gardens when she decided not to list the building, following the advice of English Heritage (described as a "beleagured quango" by the Twentieth Century Society) but ignoring the protestations of many within the architectural profession, including Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, and an ongoing campaign by Building Design magazine.

Robin Hood Gardens

As the future of Robin Hood Gardens hung in the balance, debate has raged, both in the broadsheet press, and the 'blogosphere', both of the merits of RHG and Brutalist architecture, but also the wider debate about preservation, restoration and resurrection of modern buildings, seemingly only loved by architects themselves.

Reaction to starchitects attempting to defend RHG is generally of the level of "well if you like it, why don't you live there." - see here or here. You might expect the quality press to avoid this school playground rhetoric, but we have the "why don't they buy it and mend it themselves" from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, and this rip-snorter from Venetia Thompson in The Spectator:

"Robin Hood famously robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but I am certain that he never suggested that the poor should then be crammed into tower blocks like battery chickens in the name of Modernist architecture until they were finally stabbed to death in a deserted stairwell. There is nothing truly egalitarian about the ironically named Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London — except the equality of squalor.

However - wouldn't you know it? - Modernist architects are campaigning to save it. Zaha Hadid describes it as ‘a seminal project of socially responsible architecture from the era of Utopian thinking'. Maybe she should go and live there herself. This is a prime example of the desire for impractical ‘modernity' getting in the way of common sense and human well-being."

Is Robin Hood Gardens really "not fit for purpose", as Margaret Hodge's report concludes? It's one of those horrible phrases, like "EPIC FAIL" or "broke by design" whereby an individual's subjective opinion is presented as immutable objective fact. There's little doubting that RHG is currently not fit for its residents to live in, but this is a scandal that has been ongoing for many years. Poorly maintained, and filled with vulnerable families from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds, it seems that only now are residents being asked what they think of it.

From what I have read, most of their complaints are about building maintainence issues, and overcrowding. That the roofs leak, there are rats, and that large families are living in 2 bedroom flats, are hardly the result of poor design by the Smithsons, of architectural ideology taking precedent over the well-being of its residents. Instead they are symptoms of wayward social housing policies by Tower Hamlets council and central government.

As this article states, some residents are worried about where they will be rehoused:

'Resident Masum Ali: "I've lived here since 2001 and I've never had a complaint about the place. But I've never seen the council do any repairs or painting.

People want to stay here and they want to remain with the council. We're tenants of the council, not English Partnerships or a registered social landlord. The places we've been shown in Bow are very small and you can almost touch the roof.

I've spent money on this house and I want to stay here. It's very quiet and we've got a nice community. It feels like we're being ignored.”"

The article claims that tenants 150 of the 214 units have asked to remain with the council rather than come off the council list and transfer to a social landlord (ie private management company) or an Arms Length Management Organisation (ie private management company).

'Firuz Mirh has been living on the estate for 10 years, and is worried about possible price increases.

He said: “It was a nice place to live, but it's not any more.

"The Blackwall Tunnel is getting busier and there's a lot more pollution. And the building is getting old and there are a lot of cracks appearing.

People moved into these houses with one or two children, and they're still there with three, four or five because they can't afford anything bigger.

A lot of people are asking why the council can't run the new development. They're worried they won't be able to afford to live if the prices go up, especially when you include the gas and electric bills. People are just struggling to survive."'

There is real luxury at Robin Hood Gardens. But it is a luxury of material, of light and of space, both public and private. The flats themselves are well designed and generously proportioned, the density across the site is not that high (only 214 units), and there is a chronically underused open space between the two slab blocks. But it's hard to appreciate this when the lights in the stairwells don't work and there's water coming in.

Spend some time in an around Robin Hood Gardens, and it reveals that rather than being the squalid, desolate crime-ridden ghetto some would lead you to believe, it's actually a rather pleasant place. Rather than a high-rise, densely packed estate, RHG is actually the smallest, greenest part of the local urban fabric, human in scale. But springing up around are looming apartment blocks, with all the trimmings and trappings of upmarket chic London living, only minutes from Canary Wharf.

The demolition of RHG is about greed. A quick look at the Blackwall Reach website shows the plan for English Partnerships to 'regenerate' the area and add about 3000 housing units over the site of Robin Hood Gardens and surrounding area.

The website rather cunningly suggests that it is not possible to build this number of new houses, and generate money to create supporting community facilities, while preserving Robin Hood Gardens. This is specious nonsense, a manipulation of facts to manufacture consent. Unsurprisingly, the list of 'disadvantages' of regeneration while preserving the RHG estate is much longer than the list of 'advantages'. (This point also picked up here).

Robin Hood Gardens could be brought up to scratch for approx £70K per flat, considerably less than the cost of building new. But building new will allow building taller, building higher density, and building into the green space at the heart of the estate.

Regardless of what you think of the architectural merits of Robin Hood Gardens, they will not be knocked down because they are "not fit for purpose", but to fund development.

That Robin Hood Gardens is actually a pair of luxury designer apartment blocks, masquerading as a sink housing estate, is a secret that will only be revealed after it is demolished.


High friends in places

Cannabis Thermogram

As further evidence of my loosely constructed theory that Hertfordshire is England's own Inland Empire, a liminal interzone with a dark Lynchian underbelly, we learn that drug gangs are moving out of London and into Hertfordshire and the Home Counties, as optimal places to set up cannabis factories in suburban housing estates.

The detached or semi-detached residence on a housing estate, let on a short term contract, provides the archetypal conditions for the high-density farming of cannabis, grown hydroponically under continuously lit sun-lamps. The whole house is turned over to its new function, with even the loft space being used.

As this recent BBC article states, the police are turning to infra-red cameras to detect cannabis grow-houses. We also learn that the industry is dominated by Vietnamese gangs. Electricity is usually tapped off the mains, circumventing the metered supply:

"Other growers, in particular criminal gangs, bypass the problem by wiring directly - and often dangerously - into the electricity mains. Fire is a serious risk - in London in 2006, 50 cannabis farms were discovered as a result of house fires"

It's a lucrative and well run operation:

"Cmdr Allan Gibson, of the Metropolitan Police, estimates half the factories raided in London had been set up and run by Vietnamese gangs. Cmdr Gibson, who also heads up the fight against cannabis cultivation for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) describes how a typical factory comes about.

A gang member normally approaches a landlord and offers to pay six months rent in advance. He and his cohorts then set to work, blacking out windows and converting as much of the house as possible - sometimes gutting it in the process - into "grow-rooms", complete with lamps and irrigation systems.

From an architectural perspective, it is fascinating to witness not only the versatility of the suburban semi but also the alienation of modern housing estates, that enables these farms to flourish, anonymous, with no intervention or suspicion by neighbours.

The hinterlands of Hertfordshire, with its landscape of new towns and large suburban expanses, has become a prime location for these grow farms.

"In the last four months, Hertfordshire police's Operation Miss has discovered 24 factories resulting in 17 arrests and the seizure of 10,000 plants. Thirteen cannabis houses were discovered in the suburban towns of Hemel Hempstead and Watford, and others were found in Stevenage, Bishop's Stortford and Waltham Cross. Most houses are detached or semi-detached houses in residential streets. Neighbours of one such property in the Hertfordshire village of Standon, six miles west of Bishop's Stortford, had no idea why there were streaks of condensation on the windows of the quietest house in the cul-de-sac. Many concluded the house was occupied by quiet neighbours. "We never saw them that often. They would turn up from time to time, and they only seemed to arrive at night," said one neighbour. But the blinds at number five Orchard Drive were drawn for a reason."

Silent Running

Who would have thought sleepy Standon would have been reminiscent of a scene from Silent Running, with 15 year old Vietnamese boys trafficked in to tend the garden, rather than robot gardeners Huey, Louie and Dewey?

What other secret operations, illicit or otherwise, operate behind closed suburban doors, parasitic functions that devour the host? Are hydoponic cannabis factories the blueprint for farms of the future?