Sunday, January 29, 2006

Building cachet by association


Sunday January 29, 2006

cachet by association
* With sleek elevations and drama to spare, out-of-the-box modernism manifests itself on a massive scale. But when a prominent work becomes a backdrop for blouses or set decoration for soda, does commerce dishonor art or can both come out ahead?

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

LONG before Skyy Vodka put the finishing touches on their new ultra-premium elixir, Chad Farmer was jotting notes and planning studies to figure out how exactly to market the stuff. "We look at culture," says Farmer, president and executive director of the Carlsbad-based ad agency, Lambesis. "We look at what's happening in industry, what consumers are doing, we look at the rational and emotional reasons for why people drink vodka." Farmer and his team chose five potential advertising themes -- exotic; aphrodisiac; old world, old stills; clinical; and high design -- and spent months researching, whittling the list to one.

"We decided on high design," Farmer says, "because it's the biggest cultural opportunity right now. The masses are starting to have a higher aesthetic; just look at Philippe Starck at Target. Now that the masses are buying TVs and electronics not because of picture quality but because of high design, our choice becomes very obvious."

Skyy Vodka, meet Walt Disney Concert Hall. Frank Gehry's slopes of polished steel, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, play a primary role in the marketing campaign for Skyy 90, to be unfurled in coming months across all variety of media. "We searched around the world for instant classic symbols of modern design," Farmer says. "Disney Hall is one of the most iconic symbols of modernism."

It has also become one of the more prominent images used in advertising, along with other local buildings such as the District 7 headquarters for the California Department of Transportation, the Pacific Design Center, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "High-end architecture is getting hotter," says Ron Smothermon, a Newport Beach ad producer. "More and more modernistic, high-end architecture is flowing through the advertising industry." A wide swath of companies has filmed and photographed Disney Hall for ads since the building opened in 2003, including Microsoft, Sony, Supercuts, Macy's, Vidal Sassoon, Nokia, M&M's, Bass Ale, Oral B and many automobile brands.

Architects are generally flattered by the attention, says James S. Russell, editor at large for Architectural Record. "Buildings exist in a public space, and if they get used as the backdrop for ads, if anything, the architects are tickled," he says. But there are those who cringe when they see temples of modern design used to hock cars and toothbrushes, who bemoan the unchecked commercialization of their craft.

Some of the executives and producers behind these ads, such as Skyy 90's Farmer, are scrupulously aware of the architecture they feature; each shot is meant to convey specific social, aesthetic and economic values and to associate them with the brand. In these productions, the architecture is usually clearly recognizable, rising in full form as a backdrop to poured vodka or a gleaming luxury sedan. "High architecture -- like Gothic cathedrals, English accents and classical music -- is shorthand for beauty, sophistication and aspiration, for confidant urbanity," says Bob Garfield, ad critic for Advertising Age magazine. "It can be useful to sell credit cards, insurance and high-ticket items, especially for well-heeled people who imagine themselves worthy."

Other executives and producers are less interested in borrowing architectural prestige than in using blurred shots of walls and ceilings and architectural details to subtly compliment foreground products. In this case, buildings are often barely recognizable. "I loved the lines at Disney Hall," says Deborah White, senior art director at Macy's, who arrived there to shoot a section of the store's fall 2005 catalog. "The lines were just perfect. Our trend of clothing was burnt-out velvets, and beading and so forth. Disney Hall lent itself to the whole look -- sleek and elegant."


The phenomenon goes public

JUST down the hill from Disney Hall, the ultra-modern Caltrans building is another mecca for advertisers, receiving 36 commercial film and photo shoot requests in 2005, more than any other state-owned building in California. Last year it played host to Nintendo, Sony, MasterCard, Clairol, Mitsubishi, Samsung and others. Which didn't surprise its architect in the least.

"We could anticipate that this would take place," says Thom Mayne, who unveiled the massive Space Age project in 2004. "We had film crews in the building before it was even occupied.... I think this reflects society's continued interest in the present, in something contemporary. Architecture tends to be put under forces that are fairly conservative, and advertising has a different set of rules. It's much more open and willing to explore.... This is another way that buildings are absorbed by the public; it's not a problem -- it's not even a good or a bad thing. It just is, and should be."

Gehry tends to agree. "I guess in some way I find it flattering," he wrote in an e-mail. "And I don't really have a problem with Disney Hall being used in advertising if it benefits the [Philharmonic] in some way, which I guess it does." Indeed, site fees collected by Disney Hall and the neighboring Music Center bring in about $150,000 per year.

But other architects and aficionados of the craft find its use in advertising troubling. After all, they say, there's a thin line between appreciation and appropriation. Didn't at least some people cringe when a deceased Fred Astaire danced onto TV screens with a Dirt Devil-brand vacuum cleaner? When Mercedes-Benz played Janis Joplin's soulful treatise on materialism, "Mercedes Benz," as the soundtrack to a commercial? Why should great architecture, when used for commercial purposes, not be included in that same discussion?

"It's pretty obvious that there's a desperate hunt for really strong iconographic imagery that supports whatever's being sold," says Jeffrey Scherer, a Minneapolis-based architect who designed the Rancho Mirage Public Library, unveiled this month. "As buildings get more public currency, if [the advertising] isn't done right, it devalues that currency. Architecture should be understood in a reflective way, but American culture is not about reflection, it's about persuasion, about trying to grab attention in a way that quickly creates value through association."

In France, Scherer notes, it's illegal to photograph architecture for commercial use without first obtaining permission and paying a royalty to the copyright holder. "That sends the signal to people that three-dimensional physical objects that are occupied have as much artistic value as two-dimensional, plain-old art," Scherer says. "It's important to have some way of acknowledging, publicly, through legal means, that this is not throwaway, that it has inherent value." In the U.S., art and music receive broad copyright protection -- while buildings are protected only in that architects cannot duplicate structures or architectural plans without permission. When advertisers decide to use Disney Hall for an ad but don't want to pony up a site fee, they can and often do film from the parking lot across the street.

The Caltrans building draws into broad relief the distinction between art and architecture. The structure itself is Mayne's creation -- but neon strips adorning its facade are actually an installation art piece titled "Motordom" by New York artist Keith Sonnier. Art and architecture intertwine, and advertisers seek out the totality.

"The long, colored neon tubes on the building, they have a lot of energy, kinetic energy," says David Tanimoto, vice president and group creative director for Santa Monica-based ad agency Rubin Postaer and Associates, which handles marketing for Honda. Tanimoto opted to photograph the 2006 Accord in front of the Caltrans building. "We thought that the juxtaposition of that energy, with a static car, expressed speed and excitement and reflects the car's aerodynamics as well," he says.

While Mayne doesn't mind his work appearing in commercials, Sonnier says, "My plumes are up about that. I've gotten tons of calls now, 'I saw your work on television!'.... I have a preference that it not be used at all unless I'm contacted first.... I just want to be paid like everybody else in this country.... The downside is that your work could be used in the wrong context; maybe they'd be using the ad to sell Agent Orange or something."


Appropriateness enters the picture

ADVERTISEMENTS for Agent Orange have yet to be filmed at the Caltrans building -- but technically they could be. Anyone who makes a filming request is allowed on the property, once logistical concerns are worked out, says Gamal Kostandy, the agency's statewide filming coordinator. That's not the case at Disney Hall, where applicants are screened more carefully. "We're definitely concerned about what it is they're going to be shooting," says Chris Christel, the production director at the Music Center who oversees filming there and at Disney Hall. "Frankly, it's only become an issue on very rare occasions. We're hesitant to allow anything that puts the building forward as something that's conducive to skateboarding.... The stainless steel really doesn't like that."

The kids at Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona are certainly interested in architecture -- or at least in advertisements that feature architecture. McDonald's. Nissan. Volkswagen. These companies and others have shot ad footage on the Pomona campus, designed by none other than Mayne; and when the ads debut, the student body and faculty are all aflutter.

"The students love it," says principal Monica Principe. "They think it's very prestigious, they brag about it all the time. They're teenagers, they like the attention." It's good and bad, she says. "We are a high school, and we're in the kid business. Our main focus is education and academics. There are a lot of interruptions, a lot of phone calls, people wanting to walk around [campus] to film it, location scouts coming in, and we're trying to balance that with education. At times, that becomes cumbersome, but we work through it, because we're proud of it."

And then there's the money. All location fees feed into the school district coffer -- which opens up a new dimension to architecture that hasn't been much considered, Mayne says. "It's an interesting side effect, the building actually producing funds that go back to students. I like the politics of that. It lends the building a secondary value that no one thinks about."

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