DECIPHERING THE AUDIENCE'S CODES: DESIGN IN THE URBAN LANDSCAPE
When James Ivory entrusted Anthony Hopkins with the construction of that fantastic character, the servant in "The remains of the day", Hopkins at a point had a problem of a conceptual nature and asked for help. Ivory advised him to talk to an old Windsor butler, an expert on the subject. Hopkins invited him to tea. They sat down and chatted for a while, but in fact, when the meeting came to an end, Hopkins had a feeling that this old servant had not told him anything. He walked him to the door and as he was about to leave, determined to extract something from the character, he blurted out: "Tell me, finally, what is a servant?". The old man turned, thought about it for a second and said: "a servant is someone who, when he walks into a room, makes it look emptier than it was before."
I have tardily found that this is exactly the role of our work. And as far as my own work is concerned, I have been involved for over 45 years in what we, the people here call the graphics of large spaces, universally known as Urban Signage Systems, which basically involves making the city legible.
I met Jock Kinneir in the early 1970s. The meeting was both charming and enlightening in terms of defining my own profession.
I remember two fundamental things that Jock Kinneir told me:
1. "These urban scale design mega-projects are a test sent by destiny for us to prove our ability to remain".
2. "Man speaks in small letters, he shouts in capital letters".
For many years ever since, and after becoming involved in works known around the world as man-eating works as a result of interdependence, the involvement of various disciplines, interaction with various forces related to the work and its management, I have repeatedly thought about Jock Kinneir and the desire to remain. It has also been said that this perceptive nature of the design profession is somehow related to narcissism and self-centeredness, and I think this is partly true.
This strong urge to affix iron signs with letters and figures to cities' concrete walls, so that they live the lives of people beyond time, is in fact related to the desire to remain.
In the course of the mega-projects we have developed in Argentina since the 1970s Signage System for the City of Buenos Aires, Signage System for the Buenos Aires Underground, City Hospitals, Tren de la Costa, Highways,Temaiken Zoo, Entertainment Centers, we have realized that Kinneir s words were true. Man-eating projects.
Generating spaces where signs are designed not only to find ways and solve circulation problems, which is their primary purpose, but also to build landscape, to construct identity , in an effort to make the place legible and contribute to the "scenic" aspects, as Antonioni would say, presents some substantial complexities in terms of design and management.
I am not so sure about the real value of innovative forces. It seems to be, that some graduate Canadian students were given an assignment by their government to do some research work about the reason for the width of Canadian railways. As you know, the width is four feet, eight inches. This is approximately one meter, sixty centimeters. The Canadian government wanted to establish exactly why this width had been chosen, taking into account its strong impact on the related basic support, that is to say, the wooden sleepers that have always been a concern in Canada.
The students conducted the research and found out that Canadian railways had that width because it was the width of United States railways: four feet, eight inches. And why was that?. Simply because U.S. railways had been managed by English engineers that had used preexisting English plans. And why did the English use this four feet, eight inches measurement?. Because it was the width of old English streetcars. And where did that come from?. It was actually the width of the roads that existed before streetcars did. And why did these roads measure four feet, eight inches from one gutter to the other?. Because the old carriages that rode along them needed to match exactly the gutters so that they would not break. And where did these roads come from?. These four feet, eight inches roads came from a project developed over two thousand years ago by the Romans for their Legions. And why did those Roman roads measure four feet, eight inches?. Because that was the standard width of all roads in the Roman Empire. And why was that? Because the Romans had discovered that four feet, eight inches was the width of two horses asses.
It is interesting. The Canadian students ended by saying that they had actually discovered that the width of a turbogenerator for the Apollo capsule is four feet, eight inches. Then they found out that these turbogenerators were transported from Utah to Cape Canaveral by train, and railway tunnels measured four feet, eight inches in width. Which led the students to the conclusion that humankind s ultimate state-of the art technology is based on two horses asses. Where is innovation now?
We cling to our habits and customs much harder than we think. And in fact, our earthly profession, design, is so closely related to people the end beneficiaries of our work- that how could we possibly not respect their habits and customs.
I was told that a few years ago, while architect Belaunde Terry was the President of Peru, the Pope visited his country. He arrived in Peru and since he was going to grant a number of interviews during his stay, some old Incas requested to see him. President Belaunde understood that Incas had a legitimate right to see the Pope; so three elders from the tribe obviously the oldest of them- went to see him. They walked up to the Pope in the main room of the presidential palace, and the oldest of them carefully took out an old and battered little book, a five hundred year old Bible. He carefully handed it to the Pope and said: "Look sir, our people want to give you back this little book you sent us. My people say it has not been useful to them."
I found this interesting, in the aspect that to some people like myself, who grew up in cities and never set foot in a cloister, empiric knowledge has a very powerful significance. And I have to confess that most of the bibles that have reached my hands have not been vitally useful to me. Intuition is eventually proved right.
At times we spent months in angst and stress, trying to solve problems that were often insolvable. I remember that we sometimes obsessed about the matter of signs sequence, that is to say, their proper placement to permit their cultural recognition, their previous decoding. This is basically linked to another factor in public signage systems, namely, their predictability. The public knows, they should know, they think that they know, where, how and when they are going to find a sign, because that notion is already present in their minds. I find this notion of predictability to be extremely important in the construction of the public landscape, because it involves cultural factors and is linked to the quality of the service finally rendered by the signals.A public contract to make the city legible.
Finally, I think we should also consider another factor anticipated by Jock Kinner. This was the third thing he told me about. It is the struggle for power and the designer. Tackling this type of projects involves certain rare skills that are not inborn, but obtained over time. This is a form of actual establishment in the search to generate a project and specially to ensure that it survives. It has to do with the relationship between the designer and the client, the bureaucrat. You surely remember the agreement between Leonardo Da Vinci and Ludovico Sforza. Ludovico the More was a sinister human being, but Leonardo's contract was just a piece of contractual organization, just an agreement between two parties, which I find particularly insightful. And the contract enabled Leonardo not only to prosper at what was his obsession at the time, but also to satisfy his client, who in Borges' words, was a rustic man.
Ludovico Sforza not only wanted from Leonardo the cosmetics of nightly feasts, or as we would say, "the party stuff", streamers and confetti, the decoration of ephemeral stages that lasted for one night or as many nights as the party continued. In his contract, Leonardo fought to obtain what, once the party was over and the prince no longer required his services, he would have every single night: access to the palace's mortuary chamber, the morgue, corpses that were still warm, that is to say, a human being that had died that very day, in order to start his vivisection work. The time that Leonardo spent at Milan, in Ludovico's house, resulted in the Anatomy Codex, which as you know is now part of the Windsor Collection.
What was left of Ludovico Sforza? In fact, as you walk about Milan, apart from a few statues and the palace, which is now a museum, what you find is the testimony that in his house, in his palace, in the basement of his palace, at the morgue, the Anatomy Codex was written and drawn 500 years ago, for the first time in the history of humankind. Leonardo took a pancreas, he took a bladder, he took a liver, and drew what he saw. To me, this is an exemplary agreement, and I want to emphasize this, because in general terms we tend to regard our profession as an almost magical situation in which great projects are generated by the talent of those who carry them out. I find this to be relative and unreal in a number of aspects. Great projects are generated because someone was capable of establishing a relationship with the client that turned the project into a real, lasting product.
In actual terms, the connection between designer and client has a twofold meaning, because a number of assignments are actually made as such, while many others are generated by the intuition, the talent, the ability, the ambition, and the greed of those who wanted the project to exist on the face of the Earth. And this naturally involves an education that is not usually given at schools, is not to be found in manuals , and, generally, is not present in most design teaching model. It is like talking to the one that originates the design.
Borgia was mean, Borgia was cruel, but he finally made it possible for humankind to benefit from the work of the great. I have to understand that the great made their part in this rare alchemy.
I have to say that this call to work systematically in public areas has given us our share of pain and frustration. When reading George Nelson's work a few nights ago, I re-read some pages that particularly interested me in his bare and skeptical vision of the world. I have always had an interest in Nelson; I read him with delight and I have learnt from him. Nelson claims that the only serious interpretation about the creation of the universe - a task that apparently took six days of hard work - is that failure was part of the plan. And if we read the story carefully, it seems that this apple thing happened, the apple was bitten, then there came expulsion and these two characters from Paradise landed on the face of the Earth a hideous place- where unfortunately there was no further testimony of the Creator s work. All that happened after that, from expulsion from Paradise to this day, is the work of human beings. Could the Supreme Designer possibly ignore that humans can take anything but perfection?
I have a feeling - several times - that failure was part of the plan. I have been involved in a huge number of scale projects where I had that feeling. And now, as I look back, I cannot but confirm it.
Design has changed more over the last 20 years than it did over the previous 500 years. It has become an extremely dynamic discipline, primarily devoted to giving satisfactory answers to an increasingly dissatisfied audience. The search to make a profit is the fundamental reason behind every assignment. The existence of globalization naturally means that there is a "globalizer". And he is dissatisfied too.
It has been said that there are no more technological frontiers, and while special effect simulations generate jumping dinosaurs in the screens of fascinated crowds, we annihilate forests and whales. An irrational, blind greed is destroying the planet, apart from thousands of honest people who work for the welfare of all, in the belief that design is an answer to a social need that originates it and makes its existence legitimate.
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About this article
Wayfinding is a problem-solving process by which people understand and make decisions about navigating architectural and urban spaces. This feature first appeared in The Wayfinding Place, a weblog collaboration of seven contemporary voices on the discipline of wayfinding within architecture, urban-planning and environmental design.