Jessica Helfand | Essays

Sign Language: Endangered Species or Utopian Uprising?

Many of my students have, over the years, considered the street writ large as a kind of flexible, experimental canvas. Their sources — and here I would include everything from Aaron Siskind to Gabriel Orozco — inform work in which reflections of urban life are radically reconsidered. What becomes quickly evident in such investigations is the degree to which we "read" a city, how we traverse its recognizable patterns and, in turn, respond to its barrage of multi-directional and often conflicting cues. And here, the seductive transparency of language becomes particularly intriguing: from poster signage to street graffiti, mapping systems to media walls, WALK to DON'T WALK, it is this thing that Ellen Lupton once called "the designer's common currency", or typography that often becomes the connective tissue between the ubiquity of the urban landscape and the uniqueness of each individual path.

So how is it that the redesign of a storefront in Birmingham, England, has revolutionized the city with a building that boasts, in fact, virtually no exterior signage?

The new Selfridges store in Birmingham has been compared to spaceships and likened to the soft curves of a woman's body. The Guardian called it "astonishing" and The New York Times this week hailed the building for its role in reversing Birmingham's reputation for sooty foundries and Eastern-bloc style buildings. (On their website, the architects, designers Amanda Levete and Jan Kaplicky of the UK firm Future Systems, describe their ambition for the building to become "a genuine catalyst for urban regeneration.") And it is, indeed, remarkable, if only for the sheer courage that it took to approve its unorthodox design. Rising from the dark horizon of this large industrial city is a surface of 25,000 shining, aluminium disks, (fabricated, piece by piece, in a shipyard) superimposed upon a sprayed concrete shell that houses a five-story department store... with no signs in sight.

Do we miss them? Do we need them? Does our wayfinding demand that they guide our travels, particularly in a building such as this? In analyzing the role of the store in society, Levete and Kaplicky suggest that their building expresses what it is "in a way that is aesthetically innovative but also clearly signifies its function as a department store without the need for signage."

If a department store needs no signage, then where do we go, if indeed we go at all? Perhaps it is enough to experience this building as a piece of urban sculpture, seamlessly wrapping the street and offsetting the Gothic angularity of its surrounding churches. Isn't this enough? Could its mere inclusion in the industrial landscape of this downtrodden city be enough to boost commerce, or do you have to sell shirts, too? The directors of Selfridges no doubt have their answer, but it remains to be seen whether critics will agree. (Despite one architectural critic's suggested metaphor of "space fungus," reviews have largely agreed that in creating this new landmark, Future Systems have made a world-class architectural showplace.)

Winston Churchill once remarked that we shape our buildings, and afterwards they shape us. Indeed, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao — and now, new architecture in Birmingham — are showing us that shape may, in fact, be everything. If so, the graphic designer's "common currency" may trade poorly against this notion, suggesting that our investigations need to play themselves out on a broader, more experimental (and yes, courageous) scope. Not unlike Aaron Siskind and Gabriel Orozco. Or, for that matter, my students.

Posted in: Architecture, Education , Graphic Design, Social Good, Typography

Comments [3]

The Selfridge's building can presumably dispense with signage because it is so bold and unique in its context. Right now, I doubt that anyone in Birmingham would confuse it with any other building. If the the architectural context were to change around it and dilute the impact of the Selfridge's design, the store would probably need signage or some other kind of supplementary system to identify itself. It's in a rare position or public awareness right now to be known without a sign, but only because the uniqueness of the building IS the sign, albeit one which is written in architectural forms rather than typography. If that uniqueness was lost, the public would have to rely on a system it understood more readily, such as text-based signage.

But it might not need anything for a while. The World Trade Center, for example, could be read as a sign for itself, since it enjoyed a unique position in the landscape. Other buildings which became stylistic templates for their later neighbors aren't so easily distinguished without resorting to some other system of identification.

If the architectural language of an entire structure can't be readily understood, then its signage, which relies on a shared textual language, is the next most easily understood system.
Daniel Rhatigan

Most architects I've worked with say, sooner or later, "Well, the building itself is a sign," generally in the context where I've been hired to put a sign on their building. Sometimes they're right, usually they're wrong. Usually they just don't want me or anyone else putting signs on their building.

As Daniel says above, context is important. A Birmingham where every building looked like Selfridge's would actually need more signs than Las Vegas.

I also think that a sign of some sort is civic-minded and polite; it's a way of properly introducing yourself to strangers. The Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan has a sign; so does the one in Bilbao. At the Louvre, even the Mona Lisa has an identifying wall label.
Michael Bierut

When someone designs a building like this, they're also relying on media coverage to say what the building is. It multiplies and disperses a disembodied sign. Prices will probably be higher than usual, so it'll be more of a tourist attraction than a department store. I'd be interested to see how things develop for Selfridges and Birmingham in the next couple years.

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