The entire idea of city branding is to influence people to live in them, to attract tourists, to enhance the economy. With more and more pandemics and unrest hitting the world, people have begun to realize the importance of quality of life. This, in turn, has sought to change the typology of architecture being preferred in the city from large urban inserts to smaller place-making interventions. Thus, changing the scale and nature of the interaction between people and their cities. Hence, architects and planners must understand the current trend of city branding and its impact on the spatiality and urbanity of cities.
In India particularly, with metro cities becoming dangerously populated and highly unlivable, youth and economy have turned to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities as an alternative for living. This requires smaller cities to brand themselves efficiently in which relevant architecture can prove to be a turning point. In such a case, city branding beyond an attraction gimmick can be used to achieve community development, reinforce local identity, and serve as a medicine for “chronically depressed” cities.
A popular trend in contemporary city branding is the mantra of ‘experience economy’ that unites everyday consumption with spectacle. This involves using theme park-style technology and storytelling techniques in architectural projects. While uniqueness is what city branding aims for, this approach almost always leads to the same outcome that is the Disneyfication of spaces making more and more cities look the same. However, if the layer of local architecture and culture was incorporated into such projects, the story could be different.
Local architecture with its indigenous style and unique narrative will not only offer strong cultural and social infrastructure but also allow people to consume their culture quickly and conveniently. Apart from tourists and visitors, the residents themselves shall act as consumers promoting socio-economic benefits to the local population. Here, one can look at Singapore’s latest city branding venture, Passion Made Possible, that showcases local architecture and culture at the foreground of marketing, providing people an opportunity to delve into experiences with like-minded artists and the environment. Similarly, the Vocal for Local campaign in India, when witnessed through the lens of architecture can enable city branding centered around economic and social resilience.
Iconic V/s Ordinary
Cities throughout history have had iconic architectural inserts into their city fabric as a branding strategy to attract people. However, such global inserts bring with them the challenge that while being iconic, they also have to communicate deeper understanding and emotions related to the place. For instance, Eiffel Tower is iconic, reflecting the confidence of Paris’ role in the industrial age. Closer at home, Charles Correa’s design for the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya in Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, is a global tourist attraction while simultaneously upholding the local context, in this case, Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of the rural culture of India with the ubiquitous courtyard modules.
However, when such iconic architecture fails to comply with the pulse of the city, they simply become a superficial addition to the fabric in the greed of global recognition. For the redevelopment of East Kidwai Nagar and Naoroji Nagar precincts of New Delhi, multiple historic neighborhoods and thousands of mature trees are being razed to give way to a modern city to be developed on the concepts of Koolhaas’s generic city.
As cities have moved ahead from being industry-driven to one focused on individuality, recognizing the creative class as economic drivers and creating branding strategy centered around them seems like a reality for cities today. Cultural and entertainment experiences from architecture, heritage, music, film, art, and festive events can offer amenities and job opportunities which in turn can help address larger socio-economic issues. Especially in developing countries like India, the old cores that were once the favored choice of living and work, now struggle for a new identity.
A successful branding approach that banks upon the creative class to renew the old city core is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale which attracts a diverse national and international audience to explore the alleys of old Kochi. Here, adaptive reuse of old structures along with relevant art and architecture has saved the old core from the brink of extinction. The Biennale has also attracted funds from investors willing to contribute to the civic and cultural infrastructure of the precinct.
A major point in branding literature is that correspondence must exist between externally presented brand values and internally experienced values. When people do not participate in the story that is being told about them, it creates resistance. Most city branding approaches end up offering a sanitized image of cities without acknowledging the various conflicts within as part of the narrative. While branding Jaipur as a World Heritage Site, only selective upliftment of the walled city was undertaken while ignoring the derelict conditions beyond the pink facades. Similarly, Delhi in an attempt to present itself as a world-class city, especially during the Commonwealth games chose to mask out its slums, eroding the lives of hundreds in a single blow. This makes one wonder whether city branding is restricted to the elite class? Is it fair to only incorporate success stories about the city and conveniently ignore other social narratives?
As cities continue to remain complex living organisms, accepting their contradicting social narratives, political biases, and entangled economic structures, can save cities from becoming ordinary. In an attempt to brand themselves as the best among the many running the race, cities today have overwhelmed us with experience. Only the quick, the loud, the hyped and the dazzling catches our attention, leaving us so little to reflect upon. Consumption has become the order of the day, with little room for intricate details that require patience and interpretation. In such a scenario, architecture through relevant spatial inserts, holistic social urbanism, and an inclusive built environment can promote cities based on cultural knowledge and self-awareness.