Building the Brand

Why do buildings look the way they do?

It’s a simple question, but difficult to answer. As a practice we specialise in bringing heritage and listed buildings back to life, but before we start a project, we will debate what is both the intention and the perception of these buildings.

Three contrasting Manchester buildings serve as good examples;

  • Manchester Library (Vincent Harris for Manchester Council)
  • Daily Express Building (Sir Owen Williams for Daily Express)
  • Stubbs Mill (Nick Moss Architects for Urban Splash)

All have a different appearance, yet perhaps have much more in common that you realise, as they were built within a spitting distance timeline of each other. As all are steel framed buildings, they could have projected any shape, yet purposely convey disparate architectural language. These are buildings we could describe as brands, each projecting powerful but different messages that tap into our unconscious perceptions.

The library, whilst striving to move beyond the domination of Manchester’s Victorian past, still harboured thoughts of the classical or even the timeless. An homage to the Pantheon and the American library model, it solidly suggested the important, serious and eternal matters of education and enlightenment contained within. At first sight, it’s unlikely that a person would think it was anything other than a civic building.

The Daily Express Building, a work of futuristic art deco, sought to convey a message of a different kind. Whilst the library looked to the eternal and to encompass all that had gone before, the Express building embraced the future and invited you into it. Both buildings were dedicated to the art of communication, but in the case of the Express, a more speedy, transient and immediate kind, readily apparent when looking through the glass at the front of the building to view the vast presses thundering away to produce the next day’s headlines.

Stubbs Mill was literally more run-of-the-mill, advertising its scale and solidity as a purveyor of machines that served the cotton industry. And Joseph Stubbs, with an instinct for branding, did not hesitate to emblazon his name on the building in a way that couldn’t be missed. Three buildings, all in close proximity of time and location, yet unmistakeably the civic, the corporate and the industrial.

What these three buildings also have in common is that even though they have been updated and in two cases, repurposed, they have survived with their brand intact. Whilst in the case of the library and the Express building, it can be argued that their listings ensured it, in the case of Stubbs, it came down to intention.

What can the genesis of these three, very different buildings and their subsequent renewal tell us about their process? The library was commissioned by competition and judged by a municipal architect who chose a municipal architect. Hardly surprising that the outcome was decidedly civic. Likewise the other two; the Express Building, a cutting edge, forward thinking brief and Stubbs a statement of textbook Manchester industrial solidity. Although we can only speculate on the mindset of those involved, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to propose that preconceptions played a significant role in their creation. The language of each building is surely testament to that. The vision of how these identities should be expressed, formed from such influences as the traditional viewpoint and/or the trends of the time, personal preferences and assumptions, the desire to play it safe or take a risk. In the case of the library, fidelity to a notion of the civic is clearly visible. In the case of the Express building, a default equation of cutting edge equals futuristic art deco. And whilst in these examples it could be argued that the preconceptions didn’t do them any harm, there are numerous occasions where it doesn’t do a building any good, either.

The idea of preconception is one that is often ignored in the process of developing a project. Finding the sweet spot between cognitive bias and creative interpretation is a matter of both skill and soul-searching.

When approaching the retrofit of Stubbs Mill, we were profoundly aware of these factors and how the impact of our own unconscious preconceptions and influences and those of the client, Urban Splash could have on the design.  It might have been fashionable to produce a faithful restoration of Stubbs Mill, but we believed we could offer something more. We took the spirit of the building’s language and counterpointed it with a modern twist, thus preserving its brand whilst ensuring its timelessness. The result was both respectful to the past and appealing to the present, thus creating a building beyond fashion. Fashion is preconception by another name and one that often doesn’t stand the test of time.

Achieving great, relevant design that appeals to the potential user is commercial gold. With similar pricing, no-one would choose a mediocre building over a good one, indeed, people are often willing to pay more for the truly outstanding. We believe we can demonstrate our understanding of your brand, your idea, your needs. But what sets us apart is the depth of attention we give to our purity of thought when it comes to design, our concentration on considering all the forces that can impact on a project. In the process of shedding unhelpful preconceptions and replacing them with sound creative interpretation, a design can achieve its true potential and reap the rewards that come from that, both in terms of finance and reputation. We can create both a brand and a building designed to last, every bit as powerful as the three examples cited here. Stubbs Mill won an RIBA North-West Regional Award and was snapped up in no time. We believe Joe Stubbs, a canny and ambitious business owner, would approve. Especially as his name shouts forth on the outside of the building as big and bold as it ever did.