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Month: January 2015

Signposting the city

Guardian Cities recently discussed how typefaces have been instrumental in building city identity. The story kicks off with the case of the the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which was hit hard by the decline in manufacturing over the last few decades.

In Eindhoven, things started going pear-shaped in the 80s, but went horribly wrong in the late 90s when the Dutch electronics giant, Philips, abruptly shifted its head office to Amsterdam, finishing off two decades of gradual pulling away.

Manufacturing goods for Philips had been the lifeblood of Eindhoven for decades and its loss was a severe blow, not just to the city’s economic base but also to its sense of pride and self-esteem. But where other cities might have floundered into a major downward spiral, Eindhoven showed typical Dutch pragmatism and began to reinvent itself to rise from the ashes in a different form.

The empty factories left by the departing Philips became affordable real estate, allowing for a number of startups and creative companies to move in, take root and thrive. This new burst of creativity in turn spurred Eindhoven’s technology and design sectors to new and imaginative heights.

As this flurry of activity began to change the nature of Eindhoven, so city planners began to nurture the idea of rebranding the city to match its new state of being. As design had rejuvenated the city’s economy, it seemed appropriate that design should also feature as a strong part of the rebranding campaign. Planners suggested creating a distinctive city typeface.

The city marketing department liked the idea, and commissioned various agencies to work on it. As they played around with sticky tape to make the font sketches, they discovered that the way the letters looked when outlined in tape, rough, with the corners missing, somehow reflected Eindhoven’s new identity as a post-industrial city still uneven around the edges.

Dutch designer, Remco van de Craats, believes that typeface can and does reflect the uniqueness of a city. Calling it the ‘voice of the city’, he asserts that type has ‘a lot of effect on the atmosphere of a place’.

Further examples can be seen around the world, such as the distinctive signage of London, Paris or New York, or the new Cyrillic typeface currently being created for Moscow’s imposing underground system. Some people, mainly font designers, say that the city’s identity is closely tied up with its typeface. They believe that the font somehow contributes to forming part of the city’s distinct personality.

Many cities are hopping on the bandwagon and commissioning new typefaces to help boost their image and bolster their identity. It’s easier for large famous cities to achieve this, but what about smaller, lesser-known ones?

The small US city of Chattanooga is currently involved in a project, funded by crowd-sourcing, to create a new city font. One of the lead designers, Jeremy Dooley, believes that a smaller city lends itself better to this kind of project because it is less diverse, less fragmented and people are more likely to reach agreement on what the font should be like.

Dooley points out that typefaces in mega-cities have achieved fame and become imbued with meaning in a largely organic way, over the years. This has often happened via their use as part of the city’s transport network, which has given them a high degree of exposure to everyone who visits or lives in the city.

Chattanooga’s deliberate attempt to introduce new fonts as part of a city’s rebranding is a more experimental approach. One might argue that this somewhat ‘artificial’ method is similar to those branding projects that try to impose a new logo or slogan onto a city. This is an ineffective way of generating a new identity.

Of course, brand consultants have thought of this already, and they have come up with an explanation. According to London-based brand consultant Paul Bailey, a successful city typeface must tap into ‘what makes this place this place.’ It must reflect the existing personality of the city, or that of the city in transition to a new phase of being.

However, there’s a risk that by getting too carried away with typeface, city marketers can fall into the same trap as that of logos and slogans.

A strong typeface is a useful addition that may enhance the image of the city on a superficial level, but a typeface alone can’t rejuvenate an entire city identity.

As with logos and slogans, it can only be effective if the proper groundwork has already been done. If the city is doing well in terms of economy, infrastructure, environment, governance, safety, culture, etc, then a suitable typeface could be used to add an extra cherry on top of an existing range of positive achievements.

When used without this foundation, typeface is unlikely to have significant effect on the image of a city. It would be like putting lipstick on a pig.

Land of eternal revolution

With recent news of Obama’s decision to lift restrictions on Cuba, let’s take a closer look at the image of this enigmatic little country.

Cuba has been suffering from US trade sanctions for a long time. The embargo was first introduced in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro seized power, and has been extended at various times since then. Nevertheless, tourism has developed on the island, but catering mainly to European, Canadian and British audiences, among others. Many Cubans still live in poverty.

Despite these hardships, Cuba has developed strong capabilities in literacy and healthcare, which it exports around the world in the form of outreach programmes in needy countries. This has helped build a positive angle into the country’s image, despite its shortcomings in various social and political freedoms.

As a traveller there’s something about Cuba that greatly appeals. It’s based on the vaguest and most indefinable elements, perhaps a sense of an ‘untouched’ nation, forever stuck in a 1950s time-warp, with a faint air of cool emanating from legendary figures of revolution. Or perhaps part of Cuba’s appeal comes from the capital Havana, with its various exotic associations of chunky cigars, Mojitos and streets lined with pastel-coloured retro cars.

To many, Cuba is the land of eternal revolution. Its leader, the iconic Fidel Castro, was recently replaced in his duties (but not in his influence) by his younger brother Raul. The elder Castro came to power as a revolutionary ousting the established government in 1959 and has been the main driving force behind ‘Brand Cuba’ ever since.

But for all its revolutionary glory Cuba remains poor, isolated and stifled. So why does its national brand remain so strong? Perhaps some of it comes from the image Cuba has developed over many years as a brave underdog struggling defiantly against a powerful oppressor?

In a 2009 documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of Castro’s Cuba, the BBC describes the country as ‘the champion and defender of oppressed peoples everywhere.’ This is the image Cuba has created, at least in much of the developing world.

Cuba gained additional positive recognition recently in the Guardian, which told the story of the country’s impressive medical outreach programme, focusing on the response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone (which won Cuba global praise) but also acknowledging the work of Cuban medics in many other disaster zones, including the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.

In the aftermath of the latter, Cuba was the country that sent the most doctors. They travelled to the most dangerous areas of the earthquake zone to rescue victims, some of whom were flown back to Cuba for medical attention.

‘Brand Cuba’ is unusually enduring. Not only does the country’s situation capture people’s imaginations, but its national image is based on a combination of deeply rooted elements: the land of revolution, the brave underdog, and the champion of the poor.

Despite Cuba’s issues back home, it can teach the world a few lessons in how to build an image. It will be interesting to watch what unfolds over the next few years after the thaw in relations between the US and Cuba.

Will the country finally succumb to American consumerism and lose its individuality in a slew of holiday resorts, Starbucks and McDonalds? Let’s hope not.

From pariah to chart-topper

Last year, Japan scored its first top spot in a country brand index when it came first in FutureBrand’s annual index.

The FutureBrand index measures the strength of countries’ brands based on factors including the number of consumer brands the country is known for (an easy win for Japan with its multitude of famous names in electronics), its expertise across a whole range of consumer categories, plus its overall momentum in sustainability, innovation and technology.

Anyone who’s been to Japan will know about all the quirky, unique things that can be found there, so it’s no huge surprise that Japan scores highly for innovation. And of course, Tokyo winning the 2020 Summer Olympics is the icing on the cake of Japanese popularity.

With the huge leaps forward made by Japan over the last few decades, it’s easy to forget that it was once a very unpopular nation. After the Second World War, Japan, along with Germany, was one of the global pariahs, lambasted and despised for the part it played against Allied forces in the war.

However, Japan made a concerted effort to salvage its image, combined with making big strides in creating a strong economy. By the turn of the century, Japan was well-established as a respected and admired nation.

But from the perspectives of two of its closest neighbours, Japan remains unpopular. According to a 2013 Pew survey of Asian attitudes, only 8% of Chinese voiced favourable opinions about Japan. Although the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is considered generally popular among many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, he is not well-liked by either China or South Korea.

This animosity has long-standing roots in history, much of it stemming from the brutality of Japanese soldiers towards Chinese and Korean citizens during the Second World War. Many Chinese and Koreans believe that Abe has still not apologised sufficiently for these tragic events, although some analysts argue that in fact Japan has tried to apologise but China has so far not accepted.

It seems that, despite Japan’s growing popularity and strong global image, the nation still has concerns about how it is perceived globally in the light of these historical negative encounters with its nearest neighbours.

A recent article in the Japan Times mentions an upcoming government initiative to help address this situation. Called ‘Japan House’, the plan is to set up communication centres in various major locations around the world, such as London, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo to start with. If successful, these will be followed by centres in Hong Kong, Jakarta and Istanbul.

The centres, in the style of the British Council, Goethe Institute or Alliance Française, will promulgate Japanese culture around the world, aiming to further strengthen Japan’s global image and perhaps mitigate some of the concerns surrounding wartime events. According to the article, ministers have said that the Japan House centres will use a mix of animation, comic book displays, restaurants and local specialities to promote Japan.

One can’t help but think, however, that it would be most effective for Japan to go directly to the source of the discontent and perhaps consider what China and South Korea really want. Of course, diplomacy is far more complex than just issuing an apology.

But on a fundamental level, perhaps it would be a good start if Japan accepted more responsibility for its wartime actions. Then neighbourly relations may begin to improve and Japan could start to repair the one part of its image that is less glowing than the rest.

In the meantime, it’ll be great to see the new Japan House open in Istanbul, along with all the local food specialities!

Privilege and poverty: how Beyoglu shaped Istanbul’s city brand

Istanbul city brand Beyoglu Turkey

How has the district of Beyoğlu influenced Istanbul’s city brand?

Beyoğlu, that most famous and storied district of Istanbul, is the first place that many new arrivals to the city discover. For many, it has had a significant effect on shaping the city brand of Istanbul.

The pulsating artery of İstiklal Avenue enthrals most newcomers during those early weeks, but as they grow more familiar with the city they tend to branch out and explore further, discovering quieter, more relaxed places to spend time.

Istanbul is a hectic city at the best of times, so rest and relaxation are valuable treasures for those who live here. After one year in Istanbul, I personally view this overcrowded avenue as a place to avoid.

If ever compelled to go there, perhaps to meet friends for an evening out, or to visit one of the antique shops, or just to walk between the adjacent metro stations of Taksim and Şişhane, you must be prepared to run the gauntlet of pushing, shoving and jostling international crowds. Most noticeable among these are the Arab tourists often with bandaged heads fresh from hair-implant surgery.

While at the beginning you might have wandered aimlessly savouring the bustle and diversity, now the mission is to penetrate the street as efficiently as possible, ducking and weaving through the crowds, all the while grumpily complaining about how much you dislike coming to this street.

Traversing the hustle and bustle of İstiklal Avenue leaves many people exhausted and irritable.  But on those rare quiet moments, perhaps in the early morning when the place is unencumbered by crowds, it’s worth taking the time to glance around and appreciate the imposing European architecture that lines the street side.

The area that is today’s Beyoğlu used to be known by its Greek name Pera, back in the days before the Turkish Republic was founded. Pera has a long history, beginning from the 13th century when it was established as a Genoese trading centre and foreign colony situated within, yet remaining more or less independent from, the Byzantine Empire of the time. In the 15th century, Mehmet the Conqueror took over the city as he founded the Ottoman Empire.

Despite this, Pera held on to its independence, although it allied itself with the Ottoman Empire, which was probably a pragmatic move to ensure its survival. Little of note happened until the 18th century, when the drive to modernise Istanbul resulted in a major transformation of Pera society. Diversity flourished among the largely non-Muslim population, who came from places as far afield as Russia, China and Brazil, along with many others from various European nations (Sandikci, 2013).

A multitude of cafes, bars, shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues sprang up as a result of the population’s needs and wants. With all these nationalities living side by side, the mix of languages spoken in Pera formed a regular Tower of Babel effect, as described by the upper-class English travel writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in her otherwise somewhat unflattering description of Pera’s multicultural population (Sandikci, 2013). This was also the time when various nations established embassies in Pera and staked out their own little patches of territory within the tangle that was Istanbul.

The resulting clusters of European-ness around each embassy (including Greek, French, Swedish, British, Russian and Dutch) added another level of cosmopolitanism to the district and helped develop its story further. Foreigners associated with the embassies built their own churches, designed lavish homes and continued to pursue their usual habits and way of life among these privileged enclaves, away from the influence of the Ottoman Turks.

In the 19th century, there emerged certain elite Ottomans who developed new ideas about reform and therefore wished to recreate the image of Istanbul and change it into that of a Western city (Sandikci, 2013). Pera provided the perfect model for them to follow in their attempts to achieve this aim. So in order to further expand the district in their desired style, these elite set up a government department which took charge of regulating the area and managing its image.

It was an early example of city brand strategy. At that century’s end, things had changed dramatically in Pera. The area had become thoroughly Europeanised and bourgeoise, complete with department stores, posh hotels, expensive restaurants and decadent nightclubs that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Istanbul. Upper class Turks, foreigners, and various minority groups flourished there.

But there were certain elements of society who hated everything that they believed Pera represented. Some Ottoman Turks disliked its sense of slavish European-ness, as if this suggested that Ottoman culture was somehow inferior. Conservative Muslims also disliked Pera, but for what they perceived as its immorality (Sandikci, 2013). Despite these differences of opinion the area continued to grow and develop, maintaining its strong image while at the same time helping to cement the overall perception among Europeans of Istanbul as a desirable, exotic city. City brand strategy had begun, albeit organic rather than deliberately engineered.

When the Ottoman Empire finally fell, Istanbul’s role within the new Turkish Republic was compromised. The functional yet characterless city of Ankara became the new capital and all the embassies relocated there. Istanbul was relegated to second place, with its exotic elements now viewed as somewhat shabby remnants of a decadent and outdated Ottoman past.

The new nation, led by Atatürk, now had its collective eyes firmly fixed on the notion of ‘Turkishness’. The image of Istanbul in the minds of many Turks, had shifted, but the Istanbul city brand in the minds of Europeans likely remained more or less unchanged. The narrative was strong, much of it emanating from Pera where it had been established and developed over centuries. It would take more than a new capital city to water this down.

But the changes did eventually affect Pera, starting with its name change, casting off the Greek name in favour of the Turkish one: Beyoğlu. The district was gradually ‘Turkified’, undergoing campaigns including one that forced everyone to speak Turkish, another that imposed levies on non-Muslim residents, and assorted incidents of looting, vandalism and destruction of churches, shops and houses in the area. Gradually, foreign residents lost their will to remain in Beyoğlu. Life there was no longer easy or pleasant. There was a mass exodus of the foreign population and lots of buildings were left vacant as a result.

The area’s economic strength diminished and property prices became low. In the 1960s, as Istanbul underwent a phase of industrialisation, an influx of immigrants arrived in the city. They gravitated towards the now-affordable Beyoğlu where they could rent cheap housing, or in many cases occupy abandoned buildings illegally. The character of the area began to shift as numerous marginalised groups set up home there, including sex workers, transvestites, and Roma gypsies.

Brothels were opened, drug pushers became more common, and any remaining affluent residents soon moved to more salubrious parts of the city. By the time the 1970s rolled around, Beyoğlu had become associated with seedy underground lifestyles and petty crime on the margins of Istanbul society. What was once the bourgeois and upper-class Pera was now a place that would have been unrecognisable except for the European architecture that still remained, rearing up with its imposing facades from among the shabbiness.

Today’s Beyoğlu has managed to balance on a fine line between its two identities. The seedy side is still there, with prostitutes peering from second story windows in certain back streets behind Istiklal Avenue. Transgendered prostitutes can be found among certain nightclubs catering for that particular target audience. Drunken punters fill the back alleys at night and no doubt plenty of drugs are available if one knows where to look.

At the same time, this area is famous. It remains popular among visitors and Istanbullers alike. Beyoğlu is the district of Taksim Square, of the trendy Galata area, of Tophane and its fashionable boutique hotels, and high-rent Cihangir with its droves of affluent residents both foreign and Turkish. The place image is strong and attracts many tourists to the city, especially wealthy Gulf Arabs, who can be seen in hordes around Taksim and its environs. There are shops, hotels and restaurants springing up to cater for this relatively new Gulf tourism trend, with Arabic signs becoming a common sight around Beyoğlu these days.

There is also the contentious issue of Tarlabasi, a Beyoğlu sub-district bordering Taksim Square on the other side of a large road. Despite concerted efforts at gentrification, this area has remained seemingly stuck at an earlier stage of development. Unlike the rest of Beyoğlu, Tarlabasi retains a reputation for seediness and crime that is not seen as part of a tourist experience but as a real danger.

While most of Beyoğlu may be viewed as an interestingly ‘edgy’ district, Tarlabasi remains a place that locals actively advise foreigners to avoid. Rents there are low, reflecting its perceived reputation as a no-go area. Much has been written about Tarlabasi, and its history is a topic outside the scope of this already oversized post. Suffice to say that many of the existing analyses involve the possible fate of the marginalised communities that still cling onto their lives there. It is an interesting topic worth exploring at a later date.

History shows us that Beyoğlu’s cosmopolitan, somewhat decadent nature was part of its identity from the very first days of its existence. A place narrative of this strength and depth becomes quite resilient to change. Beyoğlu has been able to retain its distinct characteristics. It could be said that the influence of this unique area has done more than any other part of Istanbul to develop the city’s overall reputation and image. Beyoğlu has become a city brand strategy extraordinaire.

(The historical information in this piece was inspired by a journal article entitled: ‘Strolling through Istanbul’s Beyoglu: In-between Difference and Containment’, by Özlem Sandikci)