Thursday, July 26, 2012


Earlier this week, Robert Venturi announced his retirement. The Philly-based practice he co-founded with Denise Scott Brown is rebranding as VSBA, under the direction of a new generation of leaders. This new abbreviated name sounds a lot like those big corporate firms such as SOM, KPF, and HOK – honoring the founders yet dissociating from their individual authorship. The question is: will the legacy of the founders survive in their absence?
Franklin Court: The house is absent.

I’ve been debating with myself for quite a while now whether a design studio could continue if the head talent(s) were not there any more. I tend to say “No.” If the work of an office relies heavily on one or two particular “genius(es)” and his/her/their own sense of aesthetic and feelings, it is not sustainable. Taste and instincts are highly personal. It’s not teachable, not transferable. When the person goes, the sensibility goes as well. A more sustainable way (or at least relatively speaking) could be to nurture a method or a rigorous way of thinking and design. Offices that claim to operate on collective decisions always need to reason with hyper-rationality. But it gets boring easily, or sometimes even soulless. I guess that’s why spring-offs from You-Know-Who usually turn out stronger at the beginning than those from other offices, but they also wear out sooner.

Perhaps the only way to continue a name is to really make it a brand. Turn it into a hollow label detached from any individual, like SOM, KPF, HOK, or even Prada, Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton… It’s interesting to compare to fashion houses. Through generations of creative directors, fashion brands are less and less about the personal visions of Mario Prada, Christian Dior, Guccio Gucci, or Louis Vuitton. Consistency or identity (here I don’t used the word “style”) is no longer the highest concern of the companies. When LV took Moët et Chandon and Hennessy and formed a giant luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in 1987, it turned its identity from design to luxury consumerism.

When the brand transcends design, identity is easy to maintain. The value of LV bags is more about the logo printed on them than the actual aesthetic or functionality of the product. Another big difference between architecture and fashion is that fashion commodities (not haute couture) are highly repetitive. If you’ve got the iconic little black jacket, or the perfect formula of No.5, you just keep producing them and you’ll always be Chanel. We architects can’t build the same buildings over and over again, even if you are Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid (they are pretty close though).

Chanel’s Little Black Jacket exhibition in New York
After the death of Alexander McQueen in 2010, his long-term assistant Sarah Burton stepped up as the new creative director to continue the label. She was instantly accepted, and got big jobs such as the design of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress last year. Maybe at the end, continuing a brand is more about picking the right protégé.

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