A Question of Identity

Identity (noun): the characteristics that determine who or what a person, thing (or place) is.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? We recognise people, things and places by their identifying and sometimes unique characteristics. While we might not spend much time thinking about it, we all, to some extent or other, shape our own identities not only as individuals but also as members of wider groups and organisations through the roles we take on.

What we wear, what we say and do, the values and beliefs we hold, the interests and hobbies we follow, how we vote, where we live, where we work: all are part of our identity. Some of these characteristics are mutable, changing over time with the passing fashions (as we give ourselves a bit of a makeover) or because of changes in our circumstances. Meanwhile, other aspects of our identity are such an intrinsic part of our nature that they just are: the colour of our skin, our eyes and the (natural) colour of our hair, for example. Taken together, all these aspects of our identity affect not only how we see and understand ourselves but also how others see, and know, us.

Developing brand identity

This is also true for organisations and businesses where branding, design and marketing play such a large part in establishing the identity and reputation of the goods and services they have to offer. However, in an increasingly global economy, making sense of a brand’s identity can be more complicated than it first appears. You only have to think of famous British car marques such as Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar, none of which is any longer British owned, to see the problem. Does foreign ownership, and possibly foreign manufacture (even if only of some of the parts), make these brands less British? Do the name and brand transcend such factors as ownership and place of origin, or do foreign ownership and manufacture trammel any claim to Britishness?

Like for Like – but is it the same?

The loss of the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building to fire in June 2018, just a few months ahead of its scheduled re-opening following the earlier fire of 2014, was a terrible blow, not only to the institution and the city but also to anyone who admires the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). As we now know, some parts of the surviving structure were so badly damaged that they were deemed unstable and had to be taken down. The good news is that there appears to be sufficient enthusiasm (and presumably funding) to see the building rise from the ashes yet again. But will it be the same: will its ‘identity’ survive or will the new building and its contents be no more than copies of what was lost?

The Mackintosh Building isn’t the first ‘heritage asset’ to be damaged by fire and no doubt it won’t be the last. When significant buildings in the public eye are damaged, undertakings to rebuild and restore often follow, subject to money being found to cover the costs – and those costs will be substantial – vide Notre Dame Cathedral. Re-instating architectural features takes time and craftsmanship which can be hugely expensive; repairing, re-making or sourcing suitable replacement furnishings, fabrics and artworks likewise. Inevitably, people ask whether or not the expense is really justified, particularly when there are so many other causes that require funding and investment.

The National Trust suffered a major fire at Uppark in 1989 and initiated a major restoration project. When HM The Queen suffered her own annus horribilis in 1992 culminating in the fire at Windsor Castle, a restoration project was launched – and the result is possibly better than the original. However, after the fire at Clandon Park in 2015 (also National Trust), a decision was taken to rebuild and reimagine the property, rather than to faithfully restore it, at least in the short-term.  

While there is a strong case to be made for rebuilding and restoration after serious loss, we need to keep in mind that what we are left with after restoration work is completed won’t be what it was before. No matter how carefully the work is done and no matter the trouble and care taken to source authentic materials and to use original building methods, the newly restored building or artefact will to some extent be a copy of what was there before. It might look the same, it might even be better than what was there before, but it won’t be the same as what was there before. What does this say for the historical significance of the building (or an artefact) that has been restored? Can it claim to be what it once was? Is its identity intact or has it in some way been transmuted?

Antique or reproduction?

The antique trade is a mix of authentic antiques, copies (which may themselves be antique in origin) modern reproductions and, occasionally, fraudulent fakes. If you know what you are looking at, all is well, particularly if you’re thinking of buying it. The problems arise when modern copies (or fakes) are passed off as originals. Sometimes, a reproduction or copy will suffice for our needs, especially if the item is offered at a big discount over the cost of an original item. And copies can achieve their own identity: Michelangelo’s sculpture of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is probably seen and photographed more frequently, despite being a replica, than the original which has been located in the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873. Visit a stately home and it’s not unheard of to find yourself looking at a copy of an artwork, the original having been auctioned off to raise funds for the family that once lived in the house or to pay for restoration work to the property.

A new broom

There are different versions of this ‘thought experiment’ but they raise the same basic conundrum about identity. In the simplest terms the discussion can be based on what happens with a yard broom. If the head wears out and is replaced, it’s still the same yard broom and good for a few more years. But what happens when you eventually need to replace the handle as well? Is it still the same yard broom when it has acquired both a new head and then later a new handle? Is it the usage that gives it the provenance rather than the parts? What if you kept the old head and then attached it to the old handle so you had a second broom made of the original parts: which one is the more authentic yard broom?

Genius Loci

The identity of a place arises in part from its geography and location, and in part from its history and traditions, often made visible through its architecture, street layout and so on. People imbue a place with cultural and social resonance (and sometimes, dissonance): they give a place character, memory and personality. Collectively, these factors create what we might call local distinctiveness.  But such qualities change over time. As traditional skills and industries wain and perhaps disappear or demographic change occurs, our towns and cities change and evolve too. They always have, and they always will. Old buildings get demolished or repurposed, new housing gets built, sometimes on a massive scale, and new infrastructure is laid out.

Local versus Global

Within the civic society movement, I’d like to think that we have a role to play in shaping or maintaining the local distinctiveness of the places where we live – but it’s not getting any easier! Is it even possible to preserve the local distinctiveness when national housebuilders seem intent on using the same standard designs right across the land, or when high streets and retail parks feature the same identikit store chains, each with their own national and sometimes international branding? One Ikea warehouse looks very much like any other Ikea warehouse with their blue sheds and yellow lettering wherever they are built in the world.

In fact, as we accept the benefits of global consumerism, should we just give up on the idea of local identity and distinctiveness? Should we be prepared to forsake the notion of local identity and admit that the new vernacular isn’t local but global?

After all, the general population, and I count our civic society members among them, seems willing to drive cars that look the same across the world; to wear globally branded clothing; to rely on a few big international companies to supply their technology; and their tastes in food are increasingly cosmopolitan, as evidenced by the range of foodstuffs that are now available on the shelves of our supermarkets and the variety of restaurants in our high streets that offer culinary styles from around the world.

Yes, let’s make life easy for ourselves! Let’s abandon notions of local identity and, in accepting that we are all part of one human race, embrace an international design code, even if that means one town or city will increasingly look like the next? If all our towns and cities look alike, at least we’ll no longer need to travel to see them all, which should do wonders for our carbon footprint!

[This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the Summer 2018 edition of Society Insight, the newsletter of YHACS, the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies.]