You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Signage’ tag.
Seattle has blown it. A Pacific Northwestern cityscape that in the past was of uncluttered venues, a fringe of evergreens and recycled debris bins on many street corners.
In the brief span of the past couple of years we have lapsed into a parking-pay-system mania. Complicating itself every step of the way… how could it be when the idea was to streamline, make it green, user friendly, and efficient?
The result has been 6-foot hulking towers, 1 to 3 of them per downtown block, enough instructional signage to bewilder, and enough add-ons to create an eyesore. We now have an obstacle course of signposts and equipment. Each site has hundreds of instructional words incorporated into it… it’s informationally numbing.
We may just fall into apathy about our streets, or it may inspire us to ask for better… design for a solution that will make our streets a desirable intersection of urban culture.
Civita iconography can roughly be divided into three categories—religious, historical, and vernacular—the latter spanning many time periods. What is most interesting to me about this visual language is how each of these three very distinct layers mix. Not surprisingly, this is a recurring theme here in Civita given its amalgam of past incarnations, beginning from its Etruscan beginnings and extending up to today. Having the luxury to spend an extended period of time here looking and learning allows one to begin to perceive the extent of this intermingling in a much more subtle way.
There is also a welcome tendency here to leave well enough alone. Whether this is due to the relatively easy-going lifestyle of the Italians, their innate sense of design, or their tendency to reuse materials (more about that later), the result is that even the simplest of vernacular signs has a natural balance and pleasing composition. Hand-printed signs lettered decades ago hang happily and comfortably beside cantinas and tabacchi. Typography, especially handwritten, is satisfying as well.
Tabacchi are in fact, good examples of vernacular design. In Italy, a tabacchi is where you go for local bus tickets, phone cards and postage stamps. Tabacchi display this sign: a big white “T” on a blue or black background. The text “sali e tabacchi” refers to the two products—salt and tobacco— that these shops sold that were initially controlled by the government. Nice sign, right?
Historical signs carry with them the weight of imagination and memory, making them particularly interesting in cultures like Italy where time reaches back so far into the past. The Etruscans, Civita’s first inhabitants, and the Romans who followed, were both cultures that understood well the power of symbols and used iconography extensively for protection, fertility, wealth, crop germination, death, and birth rituals. In fact, one of the first things the Romans did on their relentless march to conquer the ancient Etruscan cities was to smash their black clay wear which was heavily decorated with symbols. Symbols common here in Civita include the horse—an archetype that both the Etruscans and Romans associated with honor and spiritual journeys to other worlds—the lion, and the eagle.
Religious iconographic art is sometimes referred to as “windows into heaven” and the Greek work anagogic—literally meaning “leading one upward”—was often used to describing their purpose. Iconography was an integral part of Christian life, despite a great controversy in the seventh and eighth centuries when the Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”), suspicious of any sacred art that represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons. In addition to the Bishops’ hat and keys, associated with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the pervasive religious icon here in Civita, as in much of the rest of Italy, is the Madonna. Not only is she visually represented everywhere, but her presence is alive in many of the built-in altars and icons on buildings and in Civita’s caves and grottos.
For a palpable look into this iconography “mix” we need look no further than Civita’s main piazza and its beautiful Medieval church, the Chiesa S. Donato. Here, in tangible ways, we can see not only the layering of symbols, but also symbol “borrowing” as well as active incorporation of artifacts from one culture to another.
Rosettes—which some scholars believe derived from the Etruscan paterna or mundus—the symbol of the ever-present life-force—abound as decorative elements. The Etruscan lions and Roman eagle now grace the outer entry of the Porta S. Maria, placed there in the 1500s to commemorate Civita’s triumph over a nearby city-state. Roman sarcophagi, frieze fragments, and corbels are set into the lower outer walls of the church and the nearby bell tower.
Enter the church and you will see a holy water font made from two ancient Romans Corinthian capitals turned upside down. When Civita celebrates its festas in the piazza,the Medieval symbols depicting the town’s four contrade, or neighborhoods (the Market, the Bridge, the Caisson, and the Prison) are unfurled and live on. Going back even further, the physical divisions of these four contrade correspond closely to the Etruscan layout of the ideal city, a circle divided into four areas, favorable and unfavorable.
Coming from a young country, this concept of flow and continuity in history is striking. We try hard to understand it, but we may never fully absorb its effect. Michael Adams in his book Umbria, writes: “To the Italian…acceptance of the past is natural and effortless. For him, the centuries merge more easily than for the rest of us, partly because he lives (in Umbria and especially in Civita) surrounded by so many of the physical symbols of the past, but even more because here the essential thread has never been broken…with no Reformation, no French Revolution, lies like a caesura across the line of his history. The Romans (and Etruscans) are his ancestors, as they are not ours, and all that lies between, all the troubled history of two thousand years, has been assimilated, unified, and transmuted into a culture singularly free of contradiction.”
A recent visit to our nation’s capital brought many design delights: the museums, the pleasing feel of the Mall, the human scale of the buildings. . . and the delightfully named streets. But after a week of walking and looking, we noticed something unusual—there is no J Street in DC. In all four quadrants, the street that comes after I Street is K Street. What happened to J Street?
A little sleuthing and research brought up one theory: some folks believe that the city’s planner, Pierre L’Enfant, left out J Street as a slight to John Jay, the American statesman and first president of the Continental Congress. Legend has it that L’Enfant hated Jay for his 1794 Jay Treaty, an unpopular agreement that settled some sticky issues between the new Americans and the British, which seemed to favor the British. The French were mad too because as allies during the Revolutionary War, they were now were fighting Great Britain on their own. L’Enfant, as a French-born American, must have been doubly upset.
The only problem to this theory is that L’Enfant’s plan was finalized in early 1792, and the Jay Treaty didn’t happen until 1794. Another myth proposes that John Jay stole Pierre L’Enfant’s wife or girlfriend, but that also falls apart when you learn that Pierre L’Enfant was gay. So there’s really no truth about the omission of J Street as a slight to John Jay.
So…back to why all the quadrants skip from I Street to K Street. The answer appears to be typographic! Back then, “I” and “J” looked very similar when written and were largely interchangeable, so there would have been major issues having two streets named the same. So J was left out, along with X, Y, and Z Streets.
In fact, our nation’s capital is a typographic hotbed. The whole network of east-west streets in the District follows an alphabetical pattern. After single letters are exhausted, the streets are named alphabetically with two syllables, then after those, it changes to three syllable alphabetical names, and then finally (only in the upper reaches of the NW section) streets are named after plants and flowers alphabetically (Aspen, Butternut, Cedar, etc). Of course there are exceptions, but generally the rule is followed pretty closely.
So there you go, the real reason why there’s no J Street is the solution to a design issue.
Streets are the fibers of our complex woven cities. Along the fibers cling an assortment of messages, free-radicals of a sort, and visual stimuli. Eccentric and exotic signage is in every town. No far-away journeys necessary to find great things. This one deserves attention, a wine shop (European Vine Selections) spotted in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. They have great wines, all for good value… Doug is a great help.
Read the rest of this entry »
This traffic sign always intrigues me….the iconic visual description of the narrowing road. The intended meaning is initially confident. Touché sign designer. THEN, for me, the idea morphs into an entirely different abstraction that has a contrary meaning. Using the line segments as road edges… and then narrowing the road with an angle… and some of these signs have an added element, a dashed line to express the ending of one of the lanes. You get the picture. But the “lines”… the road edges have gotten very fat, thick as walls on a house and the dashed line really looks like 3 stacked rectangles, maybe 3 windows. The slant becomes a roofline and the single lane at top looks like a chimney. It’s a 3 level house to me. The forms are breaking down to their basic abstract shapes and the conclusion can be left to your imagination.
If you were to pick your favorite would you choose the deer crossing? Graceful. Leaping across a field of yellow. With the addition of a sticky dot changes the roadscape near the holiday’s… presto… Rudolph. Very literal in comparison to the narrowing road scenario don’t you think?