Fred A. Bernstein | Essays

Visualizing Architecture

Ole Scheeren, a disciple of Rem Koolhaas and a co-designer of the CCTV tower in Beijing, makes all of his buildings distinctive. His Interlace complex in Singapore, for example, consists of thirty-one six-story blocks woven together like intertwined fingers.

Not surprisingly, the project’s logo captures the architectural effect.

The Interface mark, designed by 2x4

The graphics for Scheeren’s MahaNakhon tower, under construction in Bangkok, are also architecture-based. The building looks as though openings have been carved into it. In its logo, the bottom of one A and the top of the other A have been omitted—subtly mimicking the gap in the tower’s facades.


MahaNahkon Tower logo designed by 2x4

More and more, it seems, buildings are serving as inspiration for logos, as architecture and marketing merge. Is it any wonder that the logo for Zaha Hadid’s Eli and Edythe Broad Museum in East Lansing, Michigan, captures the building’s signature striations, or that Renzo Piano’s Shard, an iceberg of a tower in London, inspired a brilliant graphic device? There, the only reference to the building is an uppercase A (conveniently centered in the five-letter word) resembling the building’s inclined-plane facades.

 Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum logo

The Shard logo by ShowMedia London

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a logo for a Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, or Santiago Calatrava building that doesn’t reference the architecture the client paid so dearly for. True, Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House relies on a squiggle that doesn’t convey much of anything at website-size. (The logo for her restaurant in Kensington Gardens, The Magazine, uses a doodle more effectively.)

The Magazine logo by Marina Willer, Pentagram

The Milwaukee Art Museum employs the distinctive shape of its Calatrava-designed building not only as its logo, but as its favicon. (Only a truly distinctive building “reads” at favicon dimensions.)

The Milwaukee Art Museum logo 

And can you imagine a better logo for the Pompidou Center in Paris than this diminutive masterpiece?

Centre Pompidou logo by Jean Widmer

Or, for that matter, the one for the Marin County Civic Center, by Frank Lloyd Wright: a rendering so upbeat it’s nearly an emoticon?

County of Marin logo y Aaron Green

How about Toronto City Hall, another building that almost reads at favicon size, or Transamerica, which is reachable at 800-PYRAMID or on web pages featuring the famous shape (though rendered too minutely in most cases).

City of Toronto logo, designed in house

But are graphic designers taking the easy way out, letting architects do their thinking for them? Sometimes, the logos are simply architectural drawings, and not very good ones at that. How is it possible that in the logo for Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the tower doesn’t look tall at all?

Willis Tower logo

Or that the soaring Shanghai World Financial Center also seems suspiciously suburban? (These two could be generic logos, like these examples from thousands, available to any company that wants one.) What happened to “play to your strengths”?

Well, here’s what happened: Designers were amazed to read that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had paid Landor Associates $3.57 million for a new World Trade Center “identity”—but the client seems to have gotten its money’s worth. Landor’s logo somehow suggests the missing twin towers, their famous trident beams, the two memorial pools, the parallel shafts of the yearly “tribute in light,” the new skyscrapers that angle up toward 1 World Trade Center—as well as the W of World Trade Center and of Westfield, the operator of the center’s new mall. And it does all those things without seeming to try too hard. (If, as some designers have noted, it resembles a former Wired Magazine logo that hardly reduces its effectiveness.)

World Trade Center logo by Landor Associates

Many designers I spoke to resist the idea of logos based on architecture as lazy and literal. The bias is towards abstraction and metaphor. Using a specific piece of architecture to represent something else—usually the resident institution—seems like a cheap shortcut, confusing the container for the thing contained. In many ways it’s a throwback to the era of Victorian letterheads, which might feature an elaborate engraving of a company’s spanking new factory in Portsmouth.

Georgie Stout, a partner at 2x4, a leading New York design firm, said that her logos are more likely to reference a client’s values and aspirations than something as literal as a building. “Our preference is to avoid using architecture as much as possible,” she says. Still, buildings do appear in some 2x4 logos, usually for residential buildings, where there may not be a lot of other context for the designer to work with.

One problem for designers is that clients tend to overestimate the iconic status of their buildings. An example is Rem Koolhaas’s Casa de Musica in Porto, Portugal, a building most people wouldn’t be able to pick out in a crowd, though the designer didn’t help by rendering the white-on-white structure in juvenile tones. Also subjecting an all-white building to a fanciful palette is the logo for Moshe Safdie’s Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. Likewise, Buckminster Fuller, whose work was about structure—and nearly always monochromatic—might not have loved the Christmas-tree-ornament of a logo chosen by the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

Crystal Bridges Museum logo by LaPlaca Cohen

If a building is controversial, it’s not logo material—don’t expect to see Koolhaas and Scheeren’s CCTV tower on the web pages of China Central Television (which, perhaps retreating from edgy design, opted for a completely non-representational swish). Other designers might try to improve a building, retroactively, as with the logo for UC San Diego’s Geissel Library, freed from its Brutalist foundation. If a building already is a logo of sorts—like the Empire State Building, Manhattan’s logo, or Rockefeller Center, the runner-up—there’s little for a graphic designer to do. Or is there? The owners of the Eiffel Tower chose an absurdly generic logo that ignores the familiar design entirely.

Sometimes, even a little-known building can give way to a handsome doodad. Take the logo of the intriguing Knut Hamsun Center by Steven Holl—just suggestive enought to make you want to visit. The Pines Pavilion, a new disco on Fire Island by HWKN, has an angled exoskeleton ready made for dissemination at logo size. And then there’s the Palm Springs Art Museum, which derived three complementary logos from its main building and two satellites, one gently curved, the other rigidly rectangular. With just a few gestures, the museum created a wayfinding system based on its architecture.

Palm Springs Art Museum logo, Palm Spring Art Museum in Palm Desert logo, Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center logo. Designed by Gary Wexler

The logo for the Sydney Opera House represents the architecture while looking theatrical and celebratory in its own right. But a stab at a comparable logo for the Auditorio de Tenerife opera house by Santiago Calatrava falls flat. In fact, when the building hits false notes, the logo can’t expect to do much better, as in the case of the Kennedy Center in Washington, the subject of this no-go. (The logo may improve when Steven Holl’s addition to the building is completed in 2016.) Conversely, when the building is great—picture Mies’s Farnsworth House or Wright’s Guggenheim Museum—an architecture-based logo is a no-brainer.

Sydney Opera House logo

The best logos aren’t overly complex. The logo for the Cleveland Museum of Art references its two buildings—the neoclassical original and a jaunty, striped addition by Marcel Breuer—but wisely doesn’t try to incorporate the recent addition-to-the-addition by Raphael Viñoly.

Cleveland Museum of Art logo, designed by LaPlaca Cohen 

And the best logos probably don’t need color, though there are exceptions, such as the compelling identity for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. That logo references not only the shapes but also the saturated shades of the building’s Legoretta and Legoretta building. (But you can’t have everything: the logo has also been criticized as focusing on architecture but not referencing the subject matter of the museum.)

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History by DJ Stout, Pentagram 

There are some entities that should create logos based on their architecture. One is the Durst Organization, which uses a D that looks like it was chosen from a dull-logo directory, but will soon be known for its building by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on Manhattan’s West 57th Street. And then there is the Illinois Institute of Technology, which has iconic buildings by both Mies van der Rohe and Rem Koolhaas but uses an exploding triangle as its logo, suggesting absolutely nothing (or at least nothing good) about the institution. Ironically, that non-architectural logo resembles the symbol of the Akron Art Museum, which is based on its Coop Himmelb(l)au building.

Akron Art Museum logo, designed by Nesnadny + Schwartz

But perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of all? Capitol Records uses a building for its logo. Not, however, its beloved tower at Hollywood and Vine, which resembles a stack of vinyl disks, but the US Capitol, a cliché 2,500 miles away.

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