What's in a buildings name?
From Malmo's Turning Torso to London's Shard, names add a certain something to a building. So what makes a successful name?
In the case of Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower, it’s aspiration: Jin Mao means ‘golden prosperity’.
Today’s tenants are not just viewing potential space when they move office; they’re also viewing names, often bestowed by developers and agents, keen to let buildings.
Names are equally impactful in residential schemes, according to Helen Gough, Lead Director, Buildings and Construction, JLL UK. “We were working on a project to convert a former factory into a four storey high-end residential space and wanted a name to reflect its musical heritage,” she says.
“Although its working title was The Piano Factory, following a detailed review of its background to support the planning application we found it used to manufacture brass instruments. It was therefore formally launched as The Brassworks – complete with some references to its former life in the interior design elements of the reception area.”
Over in the Gulf States, meanwhile, real estate developments often acquire a name when they’re very much in the blueprint stage.
“Building names are often part of marketing strategies to sell off-plan property,” Kevin Mitchell, interim provost at the American University of Sharjah who also teaches the university’s College of Architecture, Art and Design, tells United Arab Emirates (UAE) news publication the National. “The names applied to real-estate projects are intended to evoke exclusivity or conjure up idyllic images that may not represent the reality of completed buildings.”
The recipe for a successful name, it seems, is staying clear of current personalities or brands. “Names that have stood the test of time add cachet to a building, even if they don’t add any commercial value,” says Gough.
The Chrysler Building in New York and the Harrods Furniture Depository in London are two such examples. Occupiers choose to be in these buildings because of their location and spec and, originally, both were built and occupied by the named companies – a trend far less common today. Construction is rarely solely funded by a single owner-occupier, hence fewer brands are woven into the fabric of modern buildings.
But that doesn’t stop today’s tenants, acutely aware of a building’s brand value, trying to make their mark and get themselves attached to a building somehow. They often request to change a building’s name when negotiating the lease. Salesforce famously sought to rename London’s Heron Tower to Salesforce Tower. Their efforts didn’t succeed. But in Chicago, Willis’s did, when they renamed the Sears Tower in 2009.
This is a rare example, says Gough: “We’re seeing fewer corporate egos dictating what buildings are called. Perhaps it’s because of more multi-occupancy use on shorter lease terms or perhaps it has become too risky to tie up a building’s identity with a dominant occupier.”
The public say on nicknames
Regardless, however, of how a building is branded, the public will always have its say. In Glasgow there’s the Armadillo, AKA The Clyde Auditorium and in Prague, Frank Gehry’s Nationale-Nederlanden building is referred to as Fred and Ginger.
But nowhere are nicknames more apparent than in the City of London where the Gherkin, Walkie Talkie, and Cheesegrater have become terms of endearment. Not only are they humorous, they’re also descriptive and so probably initially were used to help tell the buildings apart in a city unaccustomed to skyscrapers.
On rare occasions nicknames grow into official titles. A London Thames-side building, developed initially as a power station previously known in as Stamford Wharf, is now legitimately called the OXO Tower, taking its name from the letters on the tower’s window design incorporated in an Art Deco refurbishment to advertise the product of the company who acquired the property in the 1920s .
But while the British are happy to nickname their buildings, other cultures are less keen. As John Brash, the founder and chief executive of Brash Brands, tells the National: “Why doesn’t it happen in the UAE? Maybe because that particular brand of humour is less common here, and because we’re more comfortable with using the names our buildings are given. The Burj Al Arab will always be the Burj Al Arab to us, whereas if it was in London it might end up being known as ‘the big sail’.”
Such frivolity can also jar with architects, however, who are concerned about their reputations and potential occupants, who fear for their corporate identities. And nicknames have proven unpopular with City of London planners, who are keen to promote a more sober international business center in these post-recession times.
But things could be worse: in Barcelona, architect Jean Nouvel says his 38-storey Torre Agbar is meant to represent a geyser rising into the air. Locals, however, know it as ‘el supositori,’ the suppository, among other, blunter names.