Quentin Newark: Trespass or not trespass

Has the architect Rem Koolhaus stepped over the line with his redesign of the European Union flag? Quentin Newark explains why the crossover will fail

You might have missed it, but a design for the flag that represents the 350 million of us Europeans got aired last week. European Commission President Romano Prodi has commissioned an ‘exercise’ on perceptions of Europe from a bunch of ‘intellectuals’. One of the ideas was a new emblem for the European Union. Instead of going to one of Europe’s experienced and insanely talented graphic designers – you know, the people who have spent a lifetime making logos and identities work – the bureaucrats went to an architect, the ultracool Rem Koolhaas. (If you are going to be a cool architect, then a name that is a combination of the world’s best selling rock band and words that mean ‘cool building’ is the one to have.) This is the equivalent of getting Fatboy Slim or the Pet Shop Boys to rewrite your national anthem.

The new design is interesting. It doesn’t look like an existing flag. The design translates each national flag into coloured stripes, and then combines them into a giant barcode. It looks slightly hippyish, a bit boating blazer, and it won’t stand a chance of working. How will it look in black and white? Or small? It has no centre, no emblematic quality, no meaning. (Koolhaas has produced a back-up, erratically shaped stars, like the current European flag, but by Matisse.) This is the trouble with picking an architect to design a logo – they have no knowledge of how a logo has to perform, it’s not their job.

It is the same reason that the bureaucrats would never think of commissioning the new European parliament building from a graphic designer. Even just a proposal. Although this was not always true. Years ago, in the golden age, there were such creatures. Design giants like Max Bill and Herbert Bayer were hot architects and skilled typographers. (They could also run colleges, they took amazing photographs, invented the art of montage, wrote, painted and could chisel up a mean logo.)

All this fuss should make us think; how should we be represented? Designers create logos and brands every day for companies and products. As simple as it seems, the solutions must be fresh and reflect the culture of the client. Paul Rand – designer of great classic logos like IBM and Westinghouse – was once asked, ‘what’s the real value of a logo to a company?’ He replied that it wasn’t very important, what was more important was to have a good product. The only real reason he gave for having a good logo was ‘why have a bad one?’

Even if a logo is bad, it probably won’t last too long before it gets redesigned. What’s the average lifespan? Five years? Ten? A logo these days usually lasts as long as the chief executive. The value of an emblem, a logo or a flag to a nation is entirely different. It can’t be redesigned every five years. It has to stand for generations, not just until the next product launch. And if it doesn’t fit, it causes terrible anxiety. Just think how badly we British are made to feel about our flag. Billy Bragg’s angry new single is called Take Down the Union Jack. If you fly the flag outside your home – a joyous expression of nationhood commonly seen in France and the US – you can bank on a visit from the police.

Our flag has failed because we are changing so dramatically as a nation. We are no longer what we were when the flag was made in 1801. (It is a fusion of the national flags of England, Scotland and Ireland, and look how fused they are now.) The Union Jack seems to represent dubious ideas, jingoism, imperialism, oppression, a bankrupt past.

Any new national flag needs to have a deep story. It can’t just be the product of a designer’s (or architect’s) whim. Its elements need to grow out from the historical roots of its people. When Russia became a country again after the fall of the Soviet Union, it went back to a design 200 hundred years old, so did Georgia and Estonia. Bosnia went 500 years back, Macedonia went for a motif 3000 years old.

It’s always difficult to trace the designers of national flags, and this is deliberate. Since a flag has to signify so much, it can’t be the product of an individual, the nation must feel the design sprang, fully-formed, from its history. The biggest problem with Koolhaas’ idea isn’t the quality of his idea, it’s the fact that it implies that such an important device can be summoned up simply following a commercial process. It is as if Prodi is the chief executive officer and wants to rebrand Europe, ‘just call in the coolest designer’. It’s a glib way of behaving and is destined to fail. Prodi’s ‘intellectuals’ ought to know better.

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