Here’s a challenge: find a town of any reasonable size that doesn’t have a hip brew pub making local beer with a clever place-related name. Find a tourist town that doesn’t have a store selling high-end outdoorsy-wear. Find a town big enough to have a stoplight that doesn’t have a McDonald’s or a Subway.
Why go anywhere when everywhere looks the same?
Because places have unique stories told by their public spaces, architecture, museums, music. Detroit’s story is told by Motown and Joe Louis’s giant fist and Henry Ford’s first assembly line plant. Grand Rapids’ design story is an Alexander Calder sculpture, a fitting symbol for the world’s best mid-century furniture design (GR is the home of Herman Miller). Kalkaska, a destination for anglers (and not much else), has a dorky giant trout on its main street. Almost every town has a local history museum, usually in a treasured old house or public building like Cadillac’s Carnegie library. Towns along northeast Michigan’s US-23 highway corridor are connected and promoted with stories about places along the historic route.
Northwest lower Michigan’s highway M-22 has become a symbol of Pure Michigan, partly for the Lake Michigan resort towns it connects like a strand of liquid blue pearls, and partly due to marketing hubris. Seriously, who makes bajillions for marketing a state highway sign? A promotional genius, apparently. An otherwise unremarkable two-lane highway, M-22 became a brand representing the idea of Up North. Michigan’s Department of Transportation stopped replacing stolen M-22 road signs after someone started selling t-shirts and refrigerator magnets featuring the M-22 design. Instead of representing a single place, M-22 is an invitation to us to create our own Up North stories.
Starchitect-designed buildings (flashy contemporary public buildings designed by big-name architects) are used by un-notable cities to create an identity, typically as a national or international cultural center. The Bilbao (Spain) Guggenheim Museum put Bilbao on Important Art’s A-List, but it doesn’t tell a story about Bilbao, it brands it. The Sydney (Australia) Opera House is iconic architecture and revitalized Sydney’s waterfront… but it’s not Sydney’s story. Starchitecture isn’t used to represent a story – like a Kardashian’s plastic surgery, it’s made to be noticed.
I am not a fan of most starchitecture. The Bilbao Guggenheim (above) looks like an industrial accident and the Broad Art Museum in East Lansing could have been created by Monty Python’s illustrator. It is so aggressively unwelcoming it was used as bad guy Lex Luthor’s house in a Superman movie. (Well-known starchitect structures I like are the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris and New York’s Guggenheim. Both places were already cultural centers, so didn’t need these buildings to put them on the map.) The Broad, Bilbao Guggenheim, and Sydney Opera House are unique symbols of their places, but they’re not identities and they weren’t made to be part of the local fabric. They’re brands.
Side note: Not long ago, and to much public outcry, advertising for a horse race was projected on the Sydney Opera House’s sail-shaped roof. One group wanted to protect the iconic building from crass commercialism. The other side cried elitism. Protests ensued. Note that advertising had been projected onto the Opera House before this – but only for cultural events. So commercializing the city’s symbol is ok, as long as it’s not the crass kind.
The point being, there’s a difference between a place with a symbol that tells or invites a story, and one with a symbol that just says Look At Me, Aren’t I Fabulous. A city’s signature edifice might be iconic, but not have much in the way of substance, as though it were a building made of silicone.
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Rhode Island tried to create a branding campaign to attract people to the state. It went so very wrong.
A New York Magazine writer has a more cynical description of the sameness of cities than I do.
More on the Sydney Opera House controversy.