The word on the street

A new survey of typographic installations shows how using the right words can make a big difference to civic experience

This beefy tome is a great new reader on large scale typographic installations. The genre has multiplied in the last decade, arguably in proportion with our appetite for commissioning public art. Despite this, it’s still a relatively young area of study, as Catherine Dixon and Phil Baines, quoted in Anna Saccani’s introductory essay, put it: “Ironically, while letters surround us, nowhere is the subject of environmental lettering taught.” As ever, technology both enables and stultifies us: one of the challenges for designers is to avoid – Dixon and Baines again – “blindness to the important differences between lettering and type” caused by “the ability of contemporary production methods to generate type at any size on virtually any substrate”.

The projects in LetterScapes range from the pleasing solidity of the British Library gates by Cardozo Kindersley, to the beautiful fragility of letters made out of thin wire picked out against the sky in Ilya Kabkov’s Antenna installation, or Caruso St John’s Bankside written on a mesh fence and whose letters only become legible when seen from an oblique angle. The civic nature within the book’s selection criteria means that it’s no surprise that the bulk of the 37 projects featured are urban, with a few exceptions – notably Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta.

The project descriptions are straightforward, not intended to critique the work, and coupled with a generous selection of large colour images. A section at the back provides Q&A interviews with the featured artists and designers, followed by biographies, notes on the typefaces used, and on the type designers.

The bibliography references the wide selection of source material: Robert Brownjohn, Rick Poynor, Colin St John Wilson. One notable exception, presumably missing because of the date it was published and when this research was carried out, is Unit Editions’ Supergraphics, a book worth reading in partnership with this, with a slightly more niche, but overlapping subject area. LetterScapes is a great reference book, the only criticism of its layout would be that it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain the date at which a work was completed. One suspects that the quality of the older work is higher than the more recent. Perhaps to be expected: history is a good filter. Either way, it’s difficult to quickly disprove the hypothesis.

Saccani’s book is a product of research undertaken as part of a doctoral thesis. It’s a nice bit of ‘repurposing’, as the current jargon of platform-promiscuous publishing would have it, and it’d be good to see more of this model of taking research beyond the faculty. But despite the publisher’s ambition for it to be a ‘global survey’ most emphasis is on works which use the Latin alphabet. In his foreword, Leonardo Sonnoli hints that this is in part due to the way that, in western cultures, a fondness for set-piece figurative sculptures (generals on horses, ‘heroic’ monuments etc) still dominates the civic landscape. Using type at a large scale is born out of this tradition, Sonnoli suggests, and so there are more examples of the ‘letterscape’, as defined here, within western Europe.That, and the point that the definition is very culturally-specific. As Arab and Islamic cultures do not represent the figure in this decorative way, patterns and lettering are used more extensively, often within a building’s interior, on screens, carpets, and textiles, for example. But it would be interesting to see these differences and similarities further explored, and the definition widened. One project which is included in the book, and gives an example of the way calligraphy and pattern can be incorporated into the fabric of a building, is Ahn Sang-soo’s Hangul Gate which incorporates Korean script into a wrought iron design.

In books like these, when a familiar project turns up one can indulge in a smug nod of recognition. Equally, they encourage the compiling of lists of examples which perhaps should have been included. Mine features Jenny Holzer’s Truisms in Time Square (temporary, I admit). And the Hollywood sign on the Santa Monica hills. Too gauche, perhaps, to be included? Not by the standards of some of the other work.

Gordon Young and Why Not Associates’ 2001 project, The Cursing Stone and Reiver Pavement, spectacularly managed to annoy locals with their use, in an underpass revamp, of a curse cast in 1525 by the Archbishop of Glasgow upon the violent, feared, sheep botherers of the day, the Border Reivers. Local churchmen were dismayed that using the curse on a large stone within the underpass would make it a ‘shrine for devil worship’; a white witch called up the designers offering his services to write an ‘anti-curse’ on the Stone which held the inscription. The Reiver Pavement, which snaked through the underpass, had inscribed on it names of Reiver families – many still common names in the area, though the bearers, presumably, less of a menace. Many people were annoyed at the combination of the curse and the inscription of family names.

It’s a real knack to help reinforce, and build upon, an area’s identity through public art, which is the purpose behind many of these projects. What can seem a concept weighted with contextual meaning in a presentation hundreds of miles away or in a journal like this one can, closer to home, seem laughable or insulting. Avoiding this takes vision, confidence and a deftness of touch which – in fairness – was probably in shorter supply than the demand created by the then-generous budgets of commissioning councils at the turn of the millennium. I’m thinking of an example close to my hometown: the Chester-le-Street arch, recently demolished by the council following it being deemed unsafe. If I read about the arch, a modern homage to the Victorian viaduct which overlooks the market place, without knowing the place, I may think of it as a sensitive reference to the area’s industrial history which also acts as a shelter. In person, knowing the place, it just looks daft. And a bit pathetic: a measly reprisal of a beautiful but thoroughly utilitarian means of crossing a valley.

In his primer for aspiring wordsmiths, On Writing: A Memoir of a Craft, Stephen King writes that he pities the filmmaker: obliged as he is to provide visuals, not allowed to play in the freedom of where all vivid characters are created: the dialogue between text and reader’s imagination. This seems relevant to using type in large scale installations. Literalism is the trap. Allowing the reader or the viewer the room to create their own meaning, the knack. This is the obvious danger for typographic installations, and probably the reason why the projects in this book which use letters in isolation, rather than paragraphs of text, seem much more successful. The specifics of words and meaning can bring our focus down to a scale which doesn’t befit or reflect the scale of its setting. As Jock Kinneir wrote in Words and Buildings: The Art and Practice of Public Lettering, “If public lettering was just a larger size of type there would be little to interest us”. Aspiring large-scale installation-makers take note. When type becomes copy, you’re screwed.

James Pallister is senior editor at the Architects’ Journal, LetterScapes by Anna Saccani is published by Thames & Hudson, in collaboration with SHS Publishing; £29.95.


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