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?
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?
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.]