plaza in space

Here at [Re_Map] we’re not just about future visions and computation and an interesting exchange with a historian of technology this week brought together some thoughts, conversations and recent archive footage, of which we had been in receipt, to make this rumination. The historian in question had been to visit RAF Barnham where the Blue Steel nuclear deterrent was stored until 1963. His observations included one concerning the plan of the outer perimeter that had unnecessarily assumed a pentagonal plan, a type of fortification that stretches back to the C14 to contain C20, state of the art, weaponry. The point being that the act of ‘design’ in technology can be seen to be frequently referential to earlier forms and methods, as some sort of default and even in the most extreme of circumstances.

Much has been made, in architectural circles, of ‘interactivity’ and of designed ‘intervention’ in the public realm. One has to ask is this at the expense or in lieu of ‘decoration’? There has been a physical and metaphorical ‘flattening’ of the city in its vertical plane. Relief in facades, over the course of the twentieth century, has diminished, though depth has not necessarily receded in the same way, as new double-skinned solutions emerge to try and affect climate change and carbon reduction. Interactivity in material and built terms is often an applied surface with a variety of environmentally responsive reactions that may include automata, light or sound and in all probability began to emerge from museum display and theme park technologies. The augmenting of reality with some new form of audio-visual encounter that crosses the real-virtual divide is a difficult territory to discuss critically in a blog post – the question as to whether it is even worthy of discourse would have to answered first; are these types of experience in the public realm simply ‘entertainment’? Should we expect the continued Disneyfication of reality as we continue to be great consumers? The role of the ‘image’ in the urban landscape is also an essay in its own right, these are not questions to be answered here.

More exactly here is the fact that ‘interactivity’ and ‘responsive art’ is not new and attributable to the rise of the Arduino and other prototyping platforms. The cyberneticians of the 1960s were all investigating such and the Jasia Reichardt curated exhibition of 1968 at the ICA is now seen as pivotal in bringing together creative from various disciplines around the ideas of interactive, generative and responsive art. Somewhere, amidst the maelstrom of unfettered creativity that seems, from this distance, to characterise the late 1960s was an artist known as William (Bill) Mitchell.

Bill Mitchell explains the setting for his illuminated art on the narrow side of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester.

Mitchell doesn’t classify himself as an artist, in his words, “I’m a doer, I like doing things, making, and art gave me the opportunity to do that.” His output from the 1950s onwards was prolific and he pioneered new techniques in casting, blasting, moulding and formwork using concrete, plaster, glass, ceramics, rubber and other self-prepared compounds. It is this large scale and ‘machined’ art for which Mitchell is most well known, but his sparkling imagination would not confine him to ‘sculpture’ in the conventional sense (despite his unconventional approach), he found himself concerned with the “brashness” of applied illuminated advertising in places like Piccadilly Circus and set about finding a way to control the arrays to combat the pollution by disorganised agglomerations of neon. He set his sights on the growing tower of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester, eventually subject to a suitably futuristic marketing campaign which saw it branded as the ‘Hotel in Space’. Footage sent by Mitchell to [Re_Map] shows him describing the context in which the new building sits as being formed mostly from a “bus station and lots of extraneous matter like trees, not very good trees”. He wanted to develop a design for a “flexible, sort of piece of drawing paper, that you draw on with light” that would cover the entirety of the narrow side of the new tower and would face Piccadilly Gardens.

Text from publicity brochure for Piccadilly Plaza. Held at Salford Local Studies & Archives.

Mitchell’s own working model of sensors and activated bulbs.

The 300ft x 65ft façade was to be covered with 16,000 photoelectric cells in panels each of 11ft in height to align with the floor-to-floor dimensions of the tower. The photoelectric cells when subjected to a signal, in this case light, would activate bulbs in a panel of a different scale, but the same gauge; there was a sensor for every bulb.

Mitchell stands in front of a full scale mock up panel. The model on the left is a scale model of the tower and the small white rectangle represents a single panel.

Mitchell was as much an inventor as a designer or artist and in his studio he mocked up a ‘Heath Robinson’ version of his idea using a  “home movie outfit” and sensors and circuits he had put together himself as well as a full scale mock up panel and models of the building.

The footage shows Mitchell explaining his role and that he then “had to get somebody who could put two wires together”. That someone was “Mr. Parker”, though we never discover where Mr. Parker came from. To produce a picture they needed to generate half tones using thyristors on the circuit boards, it was this sort of knowledge that Mr. Parker brought to the project. It is unclear from the footage whether indeed this was a commission to build or to experiment or just something that the energetic Mitchell decided to do. The conclusion of the footage states that the developer, Bernard Sunley, has yet to decide whether or not to stump up the £180 000 required to realise the dream – obviously he turned it down. It is also not certain whether the lights would be in lieu of the circuit board relief panels that were eventually used on the end walls of the tower.

Mr. Parker demonstrates his more sophisticated model that can produce half tones.

The possible application did not stop there, architect Gerry Matthews of Covell & Matthews thought that Blackpool promenade would be the ideal location for a similar set up based on two screens and outdoor amphitheatre adjacent the promenade. At the new Curzon Cinema in Mayfair Mitchell switched the light sensors for audio sensors and generated kaleidoscopic ambient projections that were years ahead of their time.

In this short film is encompassed a mass of ideas and latent commentaries that are contemporary in the twenty-first century; the notion of brand and its impact upon the city, the idea of reactive and responsive environments, the role of art in the public realm, kaleidoscopic urbanism and electronic art to name but a few. Mitchell is an intriguing character who is currently penning his own biography and this will undoubtedly yield more evidence of the innovation embodied in his practice.

mobility and legibility

Manchester motorway sign

There was, perceptably, a golden age of branding and design acting in tandem, when the value of design was truly celebrated in the context of advertising, when brand was still identity, and identity mattered. From global corporations to municipal departments, the development of new, but legible and concise, fonts and logos, throughout the post-war era, was remarkable. The timely and fortuitous collision of mass production and the advanced art of typography, just prior to the advent of the computer as a design tool, saw the mass implementation of quality fonts with perfect kerning and character spacing. It was this early work that laid the visual foundations upon which many brands were to ultimately found their cognitive presence, though in the UK much of the groundwork was for companies and agencies that were, at the time, nationalised.

The work of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for the Department of Transport’s (DOT) Anderson and Worboys committees is perhaps exemplar of the quality of output during this period. Their now ubiquitous ‘Transport’ font was developed for the rapidly expanding British motorway network from a German sans serif font, the ironically named Aksidenz Grotesk.  The demand for legibility imposed by the anticipated speed of travel meant that the engineer specified, uppercase, directional signs of the pre-war era would not suffice. Kinneir and Calvert developed a system based on clarity and the geometries of the letters, it was the spacing between the characters that ultimately determined the size of the sign, the content driving the form. The signs were tested in London before being installed along the country’s first motorway, the Preston bypass (M6) in 1958, generally hailed as a success, this initial foray into traffic applications lead ultimately to the pair being commissioned for the wider development of an integrated national highway signage scheme.  The systematic and coded approach that seems so familiar, almost unquestionable, in its expression and application, was at once both pioneering and classical; it remains virtually unchanged to this day.

The shape, colour and iconography used in this type of application are critical and the subsequent familial expansion of this specific system into a universal sign language or pattern is so pervasive that it becomes impossible to negotiate a genealogical construct. The nuances of type, that had been so intricately adjusted and distilled in Europe since the 15th Century, sustain an inter-relationship wherein the distinguishing and mutating serifs and stems and the chronology of their later metamorphoses is too complex to accurately ascribe authorship. Similarly the adoption of recognisable and mutated versions of the icons used in traffic and other functional signage is difficult with respect influence and origin. It should be acknowledged that the work of Kinneir and Calvert drew heavily on continental examples, though reworking of the entire iconographic alphabet by Calvert into the recognisable form, based on the geometries of Transport, were effectively new.

Whilst this type of comprehensive design manifesto is not exclusively the realm of the nationalised services and utilities, though it is perhaps best exemplified by this condition in the UK. The undisputable brand strength of British Telecom, British Rail, Royal Mail, British Gas all have their visual roots in this era. It was in fact Kinneir and Calvert who also designed the British Rail Alphabet; James Cousins  refers to Kinneir and his peers as having been part of a “special generation of British graphic designers”, “trained in the 1930s”.  Livery had been applied to trains since the 1840s, but it was not until nationalisation, and the ensuing brand development, that the graphics of the railway attained the “clarity and quality” attributed to the time.  Cousins also suggests that the success of the BR Alphabet (it was used by Denmark and Norway’s railways and adopted by the British Airport Authority) is down to its legibility  and the test work by Kinneir at the Road Research Laboratory.  Whilst the font was the hand of Kinneir, there were other agencies employed by British Rail, most prominent was the Design Research Unit, for whom Kinneir had previously worked, a celebrated multi-faceted agency that retained architects and interior designers as associates, Sadie Speight and Frederick Gibberd amongst them.

Whilst sign is not the embodiment of most brands, the sign was the most common method of physical communication in a commercial context, whereas livery had perhaps been the preserve of identifiably ‘national’ organisations. As companies and corporations became global in their presence, the convention of inscribing buildings, vehicles and anything else associated with the brand was increasingly commonplace, yet, still, the retention of designers of repute and of testifiable calibre was recognised for the qualitative associated value. In a relationship that spanned over a decade, Eliot Noyes’ work for petroleum giant Mobil anticipated the design of everything, from forecourt to fleet, all governed by a comprehensive design manual. It is this scale and depth of commercial visual communication practice that is akin to the national programmes undertaken and executed in earlier in Britain. Noyes had worked in the office of émigré Walter Gropius, immediately following his graduation and the impact of a pseudo-bauhaus education and the intrinsic attitude toward the holistic nature of design practice and the German tradition of Gesamkunstwerk. Paul Rand for IBM and Dieter Rams at Braun can perhaps be seen to have similar, if not total, impact on the brands for whom they designed. The brand though, if truly successful, becomes bigger than the designer and is governed by rules established and so immutable that they are applied unquestioningly and thus demonstrate their conscious acceptance.

nuclear fallout shelters – NYC

A recent research trip to New York revealed one particular area of city cartography that fascinates the authors and is seemingly without significant historical data with respect their record. The provision of nuclear fallout shelters for the public was a considerable undertaking in the United States during the Cold War era. Any such contingency in the UK was based upon the preservation of the few who would control governmental processes from secure underground bases with significant resources to sustain life for a determinate period.

A excerpt from mywebtimes article

In the fall of 1961, tension was ratcheting up between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were putting up the Berlin Wall and flexing their nuclear muscle with a flurry of bomb tests, the radioactive fallout from which was carried around the world by wind. In response to the warming up of the Cold War, the federal government launched the Community Fallout Shelter Program.

Under the program, a survey was done in cities across the country in which appropriate structures were designated as shelters, with the federal government providing food, sanitation, medical and radiological detection supplies. The food was to last two weeks. The shelters were not primarily intended to protect against the explosion of a nuclear bomb itself, but rather against the ensuing radioactivity, which would decrease with time.

Of interest here is the typological mapping of buildings that may subsequently ensue. The existing buildings selected were rarely modified and were chosen for their specific construction type and mass; a mapped record of these sites would presume a post-holocaust society and the new nodal points of this (thankfully non-existant) community. The author also found the same signs on the west coast of the US in a visit to Seattle, Washington.

Excerpt from wikipedia

Effective public shelters can be the middle floors of some tall buildings or parking structures, or below ground level in most buildings with more than 10 floors. The thickness of the upper floors must form an effective shield, and the windows of the sheltered area must not view fallout-covered ground that is closer than 1.5 km (1 mi).

Photographs from New York