A Rift Between Magic and Logic: Some Controversies of Branded Façades

The Architectural Brandscape: Between Homogeneous and Heterogeneous Aesthetics

The recent developmental agenda of cities is increasingly shaped by desires to create a more “innovative” and “heterogeneous” (distinctive) urban environment (Jones et al., 2017). In this context of attractiveness-driven urban developments forming a branded architectural landscape has become a powerful strategy for corporations and cities to exhibit, exteriorize and promote a “unique” brand identity. American architect Anna Klingmann (2010) refers to this architectural exteriorization of brand identity as “brandscape”; that is, a culturally independent site where corporations’ value systems are materialized into physical territories (Klingmann, 2010: 83).

Particularly, building façades have become a significant visual-spatial element of constructing a brandscape; branded façade designs not only embody two dimensional representations, such as logos or symbols, but also create symbolic space that are aimed to offer “brand-specific” experience encapsulating a vision of a brand (Klingmann; 2010).

However, today’s brandscapes have generated attention and raised profiles of corporations and cities while also creating a culture of the copy, imitating one another in their aesthetics (Klingmann, 2010: 3, as cited in Muratovski, 2016: 53). Branding in architecture seems to swing between the poles of aesthetic homogenization and distinctiveness. This form of branding aesthetics involving the unity of two contradictory attitudes is evident not only in retail store or urban designs, but also in serially developed apartment housings that are increasingly signature-branded.

Distinct-yet-Familiar Appearance of Prepackaged Home

For example, one of the major Korean real estate developer Hyundai Development Company commissioned the building façade and landscape design of “Daegu Wolbae I’Park 1st and 2nd complexes (2015, 2016)” from UNStudio and landscape architect Lodewijk Baljon respectively. These complexes are located in Daegu City, South Korea, and their façade design is known to be inspired by the local textile industry and the surrounding nature. The colourful pixels and patterning of the façade are employed as the representation of fashion fabrics while the roof top designs are meant to allude the shape of surrounding mountains (“Innovative Apartment Complex Designs Strongly Complemented by Designers”, 2015). In press releases, these decorative features are promoted as an “artistic gesture” creating a “scenic and harmonious” residential façadescape that looks like a Korean traditional landscape painting (“CEO Mong-gyu Jung’s Design Philosophy Reflected on the Luxury Apartment Complex ‘Daegu Wolbae I’Park'”, 2016).

However, these distinctive and unique design elements are juxtaposed with formulaic, familiar (popular), or repetitive traits. Like any other branded apartment complexes in South Korea, the exterior ornamental details in Daegu Wolbae I’Park complexes are largely applied at strategic locations—such as main entrance, unit entrance, central square or community gardens, side walls, and gates—to maximize their visibility.

Applying decorative features to these locations is, in recent models, virtually axiomatic. This strategic and formulaic treatment of façade decoration ultimately makes branded apartment complexes in South Korea look similar to each other from a distance.

Another element that smooths and neutralizes the Daegu Woalbae I’Park façade is the repetition of enclosed-balconies (the semi-outdoor space underneath the façade). The created grid pattern makes the apartment façade appears anonymous and interchangeable by directing viewers’ attention to the glossy yet generic surface, away from the interior specifics. This type of generic pattern derived from the repetition of enclosed-balconies seems to be a common characteristic among Korean apartment complexes, which come in fixed-sizes and therefore limited variety of floor plans (Hanwha Engineering Construrction Corp., 2017).

Regarding decoration styles, they also seem to respond to prevailing notion of what is marketable; the apartment complexes display decorative gestures—such as geometric (pixel-like) colouring and futuristic geometric sculptural details—that are considered trendy at the time by the majority of South Korean consumers. For the housing developer, it seems to have been important to design a façade that looks “unique” yet “risk-free” (familiar) to attract the widest range of potential buyers while still appearing innovative enough in order to maximize property sales (Klingmann, 2007: 289).

Deagu Walbae I’Park complexes remain ambiguous in their relationship to aesthetics of place.

Branded Façades Focusing on Contradictions

Idealism Pragmatism
Representation Production system
Creativity Strategy
Face Faceless

The majority of branded apartment complexes in South Korea attempts to achieve a competitive edge by endowing home owners with a sense of a particular lifestyle, a superior status, and an aura of uniqueness associated with housing brands (Kang, 2011; Lee, 2010; Klingmann, 2010: 292). Particularly, by aggressively promoting their façade designs as having the status of art, housing brands are focused on establishing their branded residential environments as exclusive, artistic, and dream-like worlds (Kang, 2011; Lee, 2010).

For instance, in magazines or promotional materials, Deagu Wolbae I’Park complexes are often described as an iconic example of giving an artistic identity to the “faceless” form of typical Korean apartment housings (“Apartment Complexes Transformed into Art Galleries…Wearing ‘Culture'”, 2014; Frearson, 2017). Have they really delivered the company vision of “innovation” in their façadescape aesthetics as they promised? Or, did they reproduce “risk-free pretty faces” typical in serially developed branded apartment designs?

“Innovation for a better future”
“Value growing over time”
“Aesthetic satisfaction”
“Solid trust”

Brand vision (From the official website of I’Park brand)

“Again, your lifestyle will be upgraded”
“Global design by internationally renowned architectural firm UN Studio and the master of contemporary landscape architect Lodewijk Baljon”

Quotes from promotional materials of Daegu Walbae I’Park Complexes (From Daegu Walbae I’Park 2nd Complex Community).

The developer claims that they employed “provocative” and “creative” architectural and aesthetical details, such as bold colouring and creating textures over the apartment façades, as a way to represent their vision of distinctiveness. However, the long-standing tradition of Fordism still dominating Korean apartment housing production seems to have created formulaic looks of apartments by repeating and manualizing applications of exterior decorations or interior layouts (Kang, 2011: 64).

“I am Not an Apartment.”

These branded apartment complexes in South Korea are trying to establish themselves as “art”-themed, exclusive places, including luxury hotels or art galleries (“Apartment Complexes Transformed into Art Galleries…Wearing ‘Culture'”, 2014; “[Apartment Generation 3.0] Apartment Complexes that Feel Like Hotels and Parks”, 2017). By doing so, the branded apartment complexes try to conceal their own origin as mass-produced and rationalized industrial objects, and at the same time reveal their façade iconography (Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi, 2002: 21-22).

So, how can branded housing architecture like Deagu Wolbae I’Park complexes address both the logic of Korean branded housing construction and the desire for representation—aesthetic identity of their housing brand? To be specific, how can the branded apartment façade accommodate both the general and repetitive nature of mass-produced elements and the particularity (or singularity) of aesthetically “creative” gestures (Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi, 2002: 21-22)?

Idealism Pragmatism
Representation Production system
Creativity Strategy
Face Faceless

Marty Neumeier’s (2003) discusses the “brand gap” as a rift between strategy and creativity—between logic and magic. The controversy of branded apartment façades could be said to arise from this widened gap between “logic”—the pragmatic reasons and marketing strategies in corporate housing production—and “magic”—aesthetic ideals of brands in their visual-spatial representation (Klingmann, 2010: 289-290; Leatherbarrow, 2002: 1-8; Neumeier, 2003: 15).

The branded apartment complexes establish their identity through differentiation and they have been focusing on façade as a site of creating these differences. However, housing developers’ branding of apartment façades nowadays seems to be no longer apparent. It is because more and more branded apartment complexes in South Korea have been investing in theming their apartment façade designs to make them “unique”.
Every branded apartment complex claims to be unique and innovative. It has rather become increasingly difficult to find “faceless” apartments with repetitive and generic elements.

Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)


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