A revolution in the use of the physical written word within the built environment.
The following article first featured in May 2004’s issue 10 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.
This article explores the poetry and agit-prop of physically embedding typography graphically into architecture.
Whether used as spiritual inscription, agit-prop or simply place or event marking, the applied art of typography used in public art and architecture has a long held tradition of being able to profoundly move people. Previously, the physical scale resultant words were formed into, marked the differentiation between a subtle personal inspiration or an iconic mass demonstration. True poetic sensitivity could only be achieved through an intimately inscribed memorial, whilst only crass totalitarianism (be it MacDonald’s or Fascist) would attempt to coerce public consensus through use of massively oversized fonts and bold inflammatory sound bites.
In a similar vein to the international avant-garde that produced ‘Art for the People! Art into Life!’ of the slogan obsessed Constructivists, radical questions to this stereotype are now being set. Created by cross-artistic collaborations and the use of new populist technologies, the power of the physical written word is starting to bear much more influence on the built environment than ever seen before – and the genius shown in these implementations demonstrate that this is as much about a reinvigorated artistic flair as it is about technological ingenuity.
For example, through the subtlety of sms texting, a mass (albeit inclusive and I.T literate) audience can now be reached without resorting to use of large-scale installation at all. In May, Manchester saw a ‘Futuresonic’ festival project called ‘Area Code’ that used sms to allow city navigators to text keywords to five set sites and receive back “personal memories and hidden histories”. In similar fashion, new media artist Peter Freeman recently unveiled in Middlesborough his 10m high obelisk called ‘Spectra-txt’, whose chameleon-like surface mutates through six different colour hues when texted the words ‘starvibe’, ‘pearl’, ‘boro’, ‘xxx’, ‘blue’ or ‘chromapop’.
Elsewhere monumentality in poetic text is also on the rise, whether it be public art like Popular Architecture’s controversial and Hollywood-inspired ‘Accrington’ sign recently featured in this magazine, or Tom Woolford’s temporary ‘Landmark’ project of 4m high illuminated letters spelling ‘LAND’ – until recently mounted high above the Tynemouth cliffs. Definitely the most significant in this genre however, is to be seen on the hugely impressive ‘Wales Millennium Centre’ in Cardiff, due to open in November this year. Designed by architect Jonathan Adams, of Percy Thomas Partnership, it features a huge window-wall of 2 m high Romano-Celtic inspired font, which, amongst other sources, incorporates poetry by contemporary Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis – translated to “creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration”. Arguably, for some, the architecture might not have the sleek purist originality of the Zaha Hadid Opera House scheme, but then maybe intellectual architectural style isn’t everything. Seen with the huge iconic poetry back-illuminated over Cardiff bay at night, I would challenge anyone not to agree with the spirit of the second inscription: “Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen – In These Stones Horizons Sing”.