Poetry in motion

The first stage of a 160 metre-long typographic installation has been unveiled near the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in west London. It’s the result of a collaboration between consultancy Future City, Pentagram’s Harry Pearce, studio Millimetre, and poet Alice Oswald

The first stage of a 160 metre-long typographic installation has been unveiled near the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in west London. It’s the result of a collaboration between consultancy Future City, Pentagram’s Harry Pearce, studio Millimetre, and poet Alice Oswald…

Property developers St James are currently turning the large site around the museum into a residential area called Kew Bridge West. As part of the project, Future City has commissioned a range of works from various artists, curators and cultural partners, including designer Harry Pearce of Pentagram.

Pearce’s concept was to create a physical link between the Steam Museum and the nearby Musical Museum, home to a collection of self-playing musical instruments.

To do this the text of a specially commissioned poem, The Self-Playing Instrument of Water, by TS Eliot Prize-winning poet Alice Oswald will be set on a new path that joins the two institutions. The path itself is on the site of the old filtration beds that were once used by the Grand Junction Waterworks Company.

Pearce decided to render Oswald’s lines – a series of ten couplets – in what is believed to be the first ever slab serif typeface, Double Pica Antique. The designer found a copy of the face, designed at round the same time as the pumping station at Kew Bridge was built, in the St Bride type museum and library.

“[Double Pica Antique] suits steel so well and has this slight grittiness,” Pearce told writer Seb Emina in Future City’s publication dedicated to the project (available as a PDF here). “It was probably created for billboard posters but it hasn’t been used for well over a century. We needed to get it turned into an alphabet again.”

The Pentagram designer and his team worked closely with Oswald and fabrication specialists Millimetre to create a stencil that was then cut into a sheet of steel.

According to the studio “the words were sprayed on with molten copper at 1,000 degrees, binding the steel and copper together. Salt water and stallion urine were then sprayed onto the copper to accelerate the natural process of weathering brought on by rain.”

Eighty metres of the type installation has been laid so far; the remaining half will be added when St James’ building work is completed. Interestingly, a proverb is apparently contained within the text, decipherable only to those walking along the installation from the other direction.

“The layout relates to changes in the environment around it,” Peare revealed, “whether it is beside a tree, whether it hits a point where people would slow down or hesitate for a second. We deliberately started it where people tend to dwell for a moment. It’s far more sensitive than just a long strip of text on a piece of steel – it wants the act of reading it as you walk along beside it to feel natural.”

All photography by Nick Turner and Damon Cleary.

For a more detailed read on the project, Future City’s The Self-playing Instrument of Water: An Embedded Text Artwork for Kew Bridge West is a available as a PDF here, written by Seb Emina. Oswald’s poen is below, taken from the Pentagram blog.

The Kew Bridge Steam Museum is on Green Dragon Lane, Brentford, TW8 0EN. See kbsm.org.

Project team: Harry Pearce, partner and designer; Sean Chilvers, designer.

Above image by Steve Speller

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