Building reputations.

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I don't know how you feel about old science-fiction b-movies, but I positively love them. Perhaps it's those predictable, repeated tropes that make them so reliably comfortable and comforting. The unconvincing, plastic creature always carries the girl away with her legs wiggling, when it could easily have just dismembered her. Alien visitors take on human form, because there's a dual benefit. First, they can integrate more easily with their human prey and secondly, there's little or no requirement for special make-up effects.

However, in my experience, the scenario which appears most frequently - and particularly in the 'invaders from Mars' style picture - is the bit where they show the aggressive fleet of flying saucers conquering every nation on the Earth by picturing the spinning craft cruising over familiar landmarks like The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the Pyramids.

Obviously the movie industry knows how to use famous buildings as geographical shorthand - and while we might dismiss the eccentricities of daft movies, it's worth asking whether a single structure can ever symbolise every aspect of a city?

Across the globe Rome is known as the 'eternal city'. At one time it was, of course, the mighty heart of the known world, governing the vast Roman Empire which stretched as far as the borders of Scotland. Which is why the city has an ancient, historical image and the Coliseum as its robust icon. This is all good stuff for the tourist business, but how much use is it to a Roman software company? It's not beyond the realms of possibility that a psychological bar would drives international clients away from Rome in favour of Tokyo or San Francisco, preferring their technological reputations to the eternal city's archaeological vibe.

Equally, in many ways, Sydney represents modernity and inventiveness. This is, in part, thanks to Australia's relative youth as a country (white Australia, that is) but it's more the instantly recognisable arches of Sydney Opera House, which gives the city its contemporary sheen. There's no doubt the building is a highpoint of 20th century architecture - nevertheless, it is surely unjust to assume the Opera House encapsulates all aspects of Sydney's culture.

Architects often strive to make their designs the absolute essence of a community or town. Sometimes they even come close to achieving this, but no structure can ever be all things to everyone. So, to see one development (no matter how venerable), as reflecting the character and citizenry of a whole city is more than a little obvious and glib as a point of view. After all, if people from other countries gaze on Big Ben and imagine they are seeing a summary of all London life, or the Sphinx as an insight into the life of modern Cairo, they're buying into a myth and missing the detail.

I wouldn't deny that a famous building can be very handy as a logo or map symbol. But to claim it as figurehead for every organisation, activity or person in a city is a claim too far.

Unless you're making a wonderfully tacky science fiction movie.


Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant



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