Sign of the Times

I first read about the controversy of the sign to be placed on the Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago back in February in Crain’s Chicago Business and didn’t think too much about it, other than how absolutely crazy the big tower sign issue was becoming. The seriousness of this issue didn’t occur to me until four days later when Joe Cahill, also of Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote an opinion piece in favor of the sign and defending Donald Trump. My first reaction to his commentary was to remember the words of the late New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp. 

We live in relativistic times. And architecture is a deeply subjective matter. One of its glories is that even stupid people get to have an opinion about it. Nowhere is it written, however, that architecture must appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. Or that there’s no difference between an opinion and an informed opinion, educated and uneducated taste, a prejudice and an idea.

What particularly struck me about Mr. Cahill’s opinion piece is that he quoted marketing professor Tim Calkins of Northwestern University saying, “He really has built a brand that means something. It stands for quality and elegance and luxury.” OMG! He really said that? Dean Blount should have taken a line from Donald Trump and told Professor Calkins, “You’re fired.” 

Mr. Cahill himself went even further, “Nobody knows more about branding than Donald Trump. He has turned his name into one of the most recognized brands in the world, reaching far beyond traditional real estate development.” Of course, it wouldn’t take much research to discover that isn’t true. The Donald has made his money in real estate, pure and simple, regardless of his forays into entertainment and non-real estate businesses. Even as a real estate developer, he has made some serious business errors to the detriment of others (while not being personally affected) and has a meager track record compared to other New York real estate developers. And by no means is he the wealthiest of them, not to mention he didn’t even come close to making the cut in Crain’s New York Business’ “Most Connected New Yorkers.”

I realize that Mr. Cahill might consider purchasing a tie with a Trump label attached to it—perhaps he is wearing one now—but for the rest of the world this is not a popular luxury item nor a coveted one. Perhaps he was seduced by Professor Calkins pronouncement that by Donald Trump “putting his name on these really spectacular buildings like the Chicago tower and similar high-rises in other cities…a consumer who is impressed to see Trump on an opulent skyscraper is more likely to try a cologne with the same name.” Mmmm, I guess next time I’m at Walgreen’s I’ll have to look for Waste Management’s new line of men’s deodorant, or BP’s skin care products. It’s unfortunate, if not embarrassing to his institution that someone like Professor Calkins cannot distinguish between good and bad branding, or even correctly define it in regard to its specific place in the market, but I guess now we know where the real estate people get these crazy ideas. Maybe the professor should look to someone immensely more successful in both business and in building a luxury brand than the Donald, such as Giorgio Armani who famously said, “Elegance is not about being noticed, it’s about being remembered.”

Which brings me to the point of why I am writing this. Why is everyone so upset about this sign in Chicago? Why should Chicagoans care? Well, because it is Chicago, and like few other cities in the world, architecture is Chicago’s brand. Chicago is one of the few cities in the world where you can stop someone in the general populace and more than likely they can point to a significant building and identify it by name. Not because there is a huge sign on the building, but because architecture is part of the public realm, it’s important to the city, and Chicagoans are proud of the fact they know something about it. And it is not only Chicagoans who appreciate the city’s architectural legacy, but also half a million people annually who take organized architectural tours while visiting, spearheaded by groups like the Chicago Architecture Foundation—the largest organization of its kind in the world. 

I understand why Kohl’s, Mariano’s, Burger King, Office Depot, Mr. Beef and thousands of other businesses need signs on their buildings. They are companies that would never consider architecture or, specifically, the good design of a building as part of their business strategy or success—quite the opposite—and they require something to mark their spot, like a dog and a fence. Nevertheless, for scores of high-rise buildings in Chicago, it is architecture that speaks to the public about the businesses that occupy them, and there is a tangible benefit and prestige for those that do. Where architects have been involved in the planning of a building’s signage, rather than a real estate broker, there seems to be a noticeable difference in quality and affect. A few dissimilar examples come to mind and in different cities: the Apple Stores designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, take your pick of which location but I prefer the Lincoln Park Store; the Inland Steel Building in Chicago (my favorite) designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; The New York Times Building by Renzo Piano; and in Washington, D.C., where the architect Cass Gilbert not only designed the placement of the signage for the Supreme Court Building, he penned the now famous lexicon that is inscribed in the entablature above the front entry, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ 

When it was originally announced that Donald Trump was going to build a tower on the Chicago River, there was a shared gasp and a sense of angst that built up among Chicago architecture enthusiasts, but when it was completed, there was a collective sigh of relief from the same group. It was, in the end, an elegant tower designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and it fit well on the river. In fact, in spite of its little flaws, it became a new Chicago architectural icon and part of its brand. We have Mayor Daley and Adrian Smith to thank for that, more than the building’s developer. And for plastering a bad hairpiece on the side of the building and deteriorating the city’s brand, we have none other than Donald Trump to thank for that.

BL

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