Global companies often exploit architectural icons to transform physical form into their desired brand reputations. To help achieve this goal, after twilight, the natural qualities of buildings have often been supplemented by architectural lighting, as the facades call unmistakeably for attention with their colorful and dynamic illumination. Representation has become the leading motivation for upgrading the lighting at headquarters and retail outlets. But when the illumination evolves into spectacular gestures, the brand identity and architecture itself starts to fade. Hence, the struggle for individuality has revived the discussion about ornament – though ornament appears now as light.
From the Decorated Shed to Software-Adjustable Light Ornaments
Early advertising messages were communicated by illuminated billboards and frequently featured company logos, most blatantly around New York’s Times Square since the 1910s. Over time people began objecting to obtrusive illuminated signs on top or in front of buildings, compromising their architectural character. This is one aspect of the ‘decorated shed’ phenomenon that American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown highlighted in their 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas. A more subtle approach to branding with architectural lighting involves abstract light patterns on buildings. Another is to blend lighting with the natural character of the architecture to produce a more holistic visual identity and where the illumination has been carefully integrated with the building. If not handled carefully, architectural lighting could lead to non-architecture, as pointed out by Venturi and Scott Brown: “These electronic elements promoting flexible imagery – graphic, narrative, abstract, and/or symbolic – work as sources of ornament that appeal to the hype sensibility of our time and as sources of information, dynamically complex and multicultural… Here architecture becomes non-architecture,” wrote Venturi.
With the advent of LEDs and digital systems anything that lights up could be treated as an addressable, programmable pixel. William J. Mitchell, the visionary MIT architecture scholar, reconfirmed Venturi and Scott Brown's scepticism of superficial lighting design when he wrote about software-controlled pixels in 2005: “The uses of the new medium remain in an archaic, skeuomorphic phase – much like that of Greek marble temples that imitated the forms and details of their wooden predecessors, or bronze axes that replicated the leather binding patterns of wood-handled stone weapons. We are still seeing horseless carriages, wireless telegraph thinking.”
Explicit Sign Versus Implicit Symbol
The imagery of lighting for brand communication spans from explicit signs to implicit symbols. Corporate colors appear vivid but one-dimensional, while more complex light compositions enable more abstract symbolism. Certain reductions in transforming a brand image into a straightforward lighting concept may not be problematic, but highly educated consumers will easily detect too simple ornamental messages and rethink their brand loyalty. For example, one dimension of identity which could be addressed with light patterns is the contrast between natural and technical qualities. These values could be projected, directly or indirectly, via light patterns and light installations. When companies want to emphasize dynamic energy in their branding, they often opt for animated media façades as a key communications tool.
Despite the genius of architects like Frank Gehry who have created impressions of dancing structures, buildings remain inherently static. But with virtual patterns of light, architecture can evolve into a canvas to tell explicit stories over time. Lighting designers and architects have been learning from fashion stylists the various ways to wrap smart luminous fabrics around buildings: this trend began with flagship stores for luxury apparel brands like Louis Vuitton and Prada, and now has reached low and mid-budget chain stores like Esprit and H&M, or even football stadiums like Herzog and de Meuron´s Allianz Arena in Munich. Consequently numerous brands have developed corporate design guidelines for lighting. Apple has even been awarded a trademark for the design and layout of their retail stores including their recessed lighting units and the luminous ceilings.
Telling Authentic Luminous Stories
Lighting concepts must appear authentic to support a brand’s overall identity effectively. For example, garish light sequences are appropriate to promote computer games, but are inconsistent with the respect needed by a financial institution. Compare, for example, the colorful and dynamic ornaments of the Dexia Tower (Brussels, 2006) and the Commerzbank headquarters with its partial coloring in the corporate color (Frankfurt, 2000). A lighting solution might be distinct and impressive to gain attention, but, if it does not clearly contribute to the essence of a specific brand, it fails the basic purpose of lighting for brand communication.
As related genres, interactive light installations and media façades have evolved from temporary artistic installations into permanent interfaces for commercial branding and to encourage consumers to shop. Here the value of architectural lighting is defined by its semiotic function as well as its scenographic and storytelling qualities. Where customers are annoyed by traditional billboards or are in locations where conventional advertising is restricted, architectural lighting can allow companies other promotional potentials. With a heightened and expanding community awareness of environmental issues, architectural lighting and media façades are obvious targets of public debates on energy and sustainability ethics.
Authentic branding requires that buildings with striking façades also offer interiors of congruent lighting quality – and that tenant companies purvey products and/or services of similar standard. Social-media and video platforms are now also essential channels for sharing luminous brand experiences with not-there audiences. They link place-fixed installations with the virtual world to enable – and demand – comprehensive brand communication.
With the idea that lighting could communicate a message between the building and the viewer the architecture distances itself once more from the “form follows function” approach. These illuminated buildings express an idea of identity and individuality and take on the long tradition of representation in architecture formerly held by ornament. However, clients and designers have shown themselves to be challenged in this respect, failing to narrow down their brand's complex identity into one or two light ornaments.
For more information about architecture and branding check out the book “SuperLux”.
Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works for the lighting company and academy DIAL. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the book “Light Perspectives”. For more information check www.arclighting.de or follow him @arcspaces.