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Typography’s lost place in architecture

Max Phillips
17/10/2022

Present Tense

Facade signage is one of a building’s most prominent and visible features. And yet it’s frequently the part executed with the least skill and care. If we want architecture that better communicates with the public realm in which it sits, type needs to be recognised as a small but integral element in the making of good buildings.

Hepworth Wakefield gallery, David Chipperfield Architects. Facade branding and custom typeface by A Practice For Everyday Life [1]

The making and use of letters was once a standard part of architectural education, and a number of architects have made significant contributions to typography in their own right.

If every building tells a story, the lettering on its facade is the opening sentence. It’s the street number that tells you you’ve arrived at the correct place, the badge of authority on a headquarters, the epigraph that announces the LIBRARY, HOSPITAL, or COURTHOUSE. Facade signage provides a semiotic main entrance for users and passers-by, and is one of a building’s most prominent and visible features. And yet it’s frequently the part executed with the least skill and care. Exiled to the limbo of provisional costs, epigraphs and facade signs are usually dashed off by juniors or cranked out in-house at signage fabricators and slapped onto the completed building like a sticker. Often a building’s designers have no say in how it’s signed. And often, it shows.

Left: Saint Peter’s Basilica, Donato Bramante et al., architects. Right: Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, architect [2]


It wasn’t always this way. The making and use of letters was once a standard part of architectural education, and a number of architects have made significant contributions to typography in their own right. Bertram Goodhue’s Cheltenham was one of the most popular typefaces of the early twentieth century. Peter Behrens treated architecture, industrial design, and graphic design as strands of a single gesamtkunstwerk, and the Behrensschrift he used for AEG is widely considered the first branding font. Frank Lloyd Wright, Arne Jacobsen, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh all developed distinctive letterforms that could operate as harmonious components of their work. And the iconic stacked facade letters of the Dessau Bauhaus were created by Gropius’s fellow architect Herbert Bayer.  

Left: New York Times Building, Renzo Piano Building Workshop; signage by Michael Bierut. Right: Pálás Cinema, Tom de Paor, architect, in collaboration with Peter Maybury, typographer [3]


This is not a Trad Guy plea for more Sainsbury Wing-style lapidary inscriptions (brilliant as Michael Harvey's lettercarving was) or a typographer’s special pleading for more prominent letters. (If anything, poorly designed facade signs are usually too shouty.) It’s a plea for recognition of type as a small but integral element in the making of good buildings. If architects are no longer trained to use letters, perhaps they should collaborate with people who are: sympathetic practitioners who understand how they can contribute to and support a building’s aims. While a few budgets allow for extensive typographic systems and even bespoke typefaces, for most jobs the fees charged by competent typographers are less than the costs of fabrication. For commercial clients, a building may be the most expensive brand statement they'll ever make; it's worth it to set aside a few quid to see that brand is properly represented. And when the budget only allows for off-the-shelf signage solutions, a trained typographer can help ensure these are chosen well and applied appropriately. What’s wanted is not a bigger role for letters in architecture, but a more considered one.

If architects are no longer trained to use letters, perhaps they should collaborate with people who are: sympathetic practitioners who understand how they can contribute to and support a building’s aims.

Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact info@type.ie.

Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.

References

1. Source: A Practice for Everyday Life.

2. Source: St Peter's Basilica and Love in the City of Lights.

3. Source: Pentagram and Wallpaper.

Contributors

Max Phillips

New York-born, Dublin-based Max Phillips is the proprietor of the Signal Type Foundry, which specialises in type design and applied typography. A former novelist and toy designer, he now makes useful, attractive things for clients like An Post, Arnott's, Bewley's, Christie’s, FAO Schwarz, and Trinity College Dublin, and collaborates with studios in Ireland and abroad. His work has been recognised by, among others, the Type Directors Club of New York, Communication Arts, Graphis, the International Society of Typographic Designers, ICAD, and the 100 Archive.

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This is the standard: barriers in practice

Laoise McGrath
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Laoise McGrath
Ciarán Brady

Graduates of architecture in the Republic of Ireland are facing a new significant barrier to accreditation, much discussed among affected individuals for the past year. What is a long journey to becoming an architect has, since the beginning of 2023, become implausibly longer again for many students as one of the two universities that offer the Professional Diploma in Architectural Practice in Ireland (PDAP – legally labelled the Professional Practice Exam, or PPE) decided to cease its offering to new applicants for at least three years – up to 2026 at the earliest [1]. This reduced the number of places available from a previous average of roughly 140 per year to the seventy places remaining at the only other university in Ireland which offers the course. In September 2024, this number will reduce again, as the remaining university removes twenty-two places from its offering. With five Irish universities producing roughly 200-250 graduates per year, combined with the number of expatriates working in Ireland in the architectural profession and requiring professional exams – this has resulted in a situation where there are, at the time of writing, around 400 expressions of interest vying for forty-eight places for the single PDAP course. This means that only one in eight to ten applicants will get a place, with the possibility for further growth to these numbers year-on-year.

The Architect. Image credit: Georges Reverdy

In April 2024, while the RIAI issued an updated statement on the dwindling capacity problems, with the welcome proposal of facilitating the PPE themselves from 2025, they did not specify how many graduates this course would accommodate, nor give any indication how much it would cost [2]. The problem is inevitably clogging the system with graduates, who have project and salary expectations that are determined by the timeline within which they complete the PPE. The current delays consequently are affecting their plans of a rational timeframe for career progression. Employers, too, will be directly affected, as they become encumbered with graduates who cannot progress through the system reasonably, and who they thus cannot expect to charge for as registered architects, or whose CVs they may not use to their full potential to win work. What should be even more alarming for the renowned richness of the profession in Ireland is how the backlog is delaying the beginning of the careers of potential sole-practitioners, previously a significant proportion of practising architects. In facing the current delays in starting the PPE, all graduates objectively must contend with a lag before they are provided the opportunity to contribute their ideas, ability, and energy to the industry in Ireland. Professional roadblocks could, and are, becoming repercussive personal reckonings for many, that arguably conclude with emigration to countries with more responsive registration systems as the only viable solution.

While legal protection for the title 'Architect' has been a persistent part of the RIAI’s two-fold aim of protecting and promoting members since 1885 [3], the role of the architect and the associated PPE was only legislatively defined by Part 3 of the Building Control Act 2007, which also bestowed upon the RIAI with the legal responsibility to manage accreditation of that title [4]. Part 3 of the Act was not “intended to exclude anybody, but, rather, to include all those who meet a defined minimum standard” [5]. In the current climate, the backlog in achieving accreditation has become so restrictive that graduates of the industry are potentially being prevented, legally, from working independently in it. This hard-won and necessary tool to protect the profession is now rendered as the means by which its reputation is tarnished – through exclusion of new members.

Architecture students. Image credit: Julio Gonzalez, SLU

The situation reveals a functional issue within the increasingly fragmented structure of the pathway to becoming an architect. The industry’s typically younger members, who have studied as long and as hard as those before them, have danced through the same rules but have reached a surprise stumbling block right at the very end. These members are becoming extremely frustrated with the slow pace of any resolution to a worsening problem. The immediate function and future of an industry cannot and should not subside because of the decision to close one course, and improved access to the profession should be increased in line with demand for university places and PPE courses to secure its future. The welcome development of a new course by the RIAI should be the beginning. Members of the industry at all levels should also galvanise government support for the formation of new courses that maintain sustainable access to the PPE. After all, as noted in the RIAI’s statement, architecture’s importance in the symbiotic development of the built landscape with the abstract social values of the people it shelters exists in governmental policy [6]. High-quality design of the future built environment, and surely by consequence, the place and skills of its future architects, is in its heart.

Update 04.05.24: UCD is reopening the Professional Diploma (Architecture) next January (2025) with a limit on forty places. A process of random selection is being applied for these places. Further details are available here.
22/4/2024
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In this article, Laoise McGrath discusses the barriers facing graduates of architecture in attaining professional accreditation in Ireland. Among the lucky few to have a place in a diploma course, Laoise also discusses the relevant factors at play in enabling colleagues and friends make informed choices about where they may want to live and practice in the near future.

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The office is hibernating

Séamus Guidera
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Séamus Guidera
Ciarán Brady

The last decade had seen technology companies grow at a rate at which commercial property developers cannot keep up [1]. The majority of office space had been designed on a speculative basis. Build a ‘Grade A’ office, and they will come – but this is changing. Demand no longer exceeds supply, and the way we work has changed, while the way we occupy our offices is changing too. With lower occupancy and flexible working, the role of the ‘HQ’ has arguably become more important in its physical presence for larger companies. An office location, design, and provision of amenities are the bricks-and-mortar branding an organisation often requires. The machismo associated with office buildings of the past is no longer the best means to externalise one's values. Hugh Pearman once described Wilford & Sterling’s No. 1 Poultry as “exuding an astonishing sense of power and purpose” [2]. Kevin Roche, decades earlier, used similar power and purpose to make the workers of the Ford Foundation feel important. In an Irish context, Arthur Gibney strove to make the user feel important in Merrion Hall (1973), introducing his client to the Burolandschaft concept of office interiors, and an "exercise in the geometry of the module" [3] in both building and landscape terms, accentuating the structure of the pre-cast concrete frame. The theory goes that these important workers tended to be happier, more productive, and stay with the company longer. However, the design of these workplaces is changing again, and the changing culture of work is the first reason why.

The second reason is the elephant in the room. According to the UKGBC, 80% of buildings that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built [4]. 85% of Irish office buildings are below a B rating [5] and c. 15% of commercial buildings in Ireland are vacant [6]. We have an increasing amount of low-grade office space, bound for obsolescence – the dreaded stranded asset again. A change of use to residential makes perfect sense for some buildings, but not all. Site values, and potential return on office developments still hold more value than an occupied block of apartments in central locations. The structural design of more recent office buildings also limits the potential change in to residential. The office building of twenty-first-century Dublin, with small atria, deep floor plates, and bulging plot ratios are not well suited to change of use. If we believe in a future for the office, then we need architecture to ensure existing buildings can become offices of the future.

Nos. 4-5 Grand Canal Square, by Daniel Liebskind & MDO. Image credit: MDO Architects

What does this mean in design terms? Simply put, this is about design either side of the facade, while the facade remains. Feature facades have become ubiquitous with high-end new build offices – leading to monikers such as the ‘Cheesegrater’, ‘Gherkin’, etc., which all add to the value a potential tenant puts on their choice of building. These building exude a company’s core perception of itself, and its place in its community. Fit-out design, and place making give tenants a real ability to make staff feel important, and, of course, to be good neighbours. The opportunity for a cloud-based company to drop anchor and show their staff, and indeed their community, that they care is most often done through building. The best building to do this in, is one that already exists.

We need to embrace the large-scale refurbishment of existing office buildings to provide the next wave of ‘new offices’ as and when they come. The way we have designed speculative offices in the recent past, with an unknown future user, has been wasteful. We have provided fit-outs to entice a tenant, which will subsequently be ripped out and replaced. We have designed structures, vertical circulation, and sanitary spaces to allow for maximum occupancy, when this is often not required. The constraints that come with an existing building should, and can, be embraced. Floor-to-ceiling minimums of 2.8m are an arbitrary, agent-led, recommendation without taking in to account the depth of the floor plate. The over-design for floor loadings, mechanical ventilation, WC provision, lifts, etc. all encourage us to build new. As architects, we can strive to prove the workability of retention, and more so prove that future workplaces can change, grow, and adapt as required.

No.4-5 Grand Canal Square, office strip-out. Image credit: Séamus Guidera

The main reason to retain what we have, is not accreditation led – it is common sense. We have an abundance of flexible buildings in Dublin, and few have been designed to be flexible. The houses of Merrion Square were not designed to cater for tenements, nor offices, but they have operated as both throughout theire lifetime. 1970s speculatively built offices were not designed to be converted into apartments, but they are well suited to it. We don’t know what flexibility we are designing into the office buildings of the last decade, but it is our job as architects to make it work, and to lead the conversation in designing the headquarters of the future.

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In post-pandemic Dublin, discussion regarding commercial property has centred on vacancy, demand, alternate use, and financing. In this article, Séamus Guidera considers the lesser discussed architectural opportunities of commercial offices downsizing and offers a broader rethink of what purposes a corporate HQ serves.

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TEST SITE

Ailbhe Cunningham
Present Tense
Ailbhe Cunningham
Ciarán Brady

Throughout Europe, contemporary best practice approaches to urban development strive to balance complex and urgent social demands with heightened requirements for climate mitigation and ecological repair. Initiatives such as the European Urban Initiative exist to lead in the definition, funding, and guidance of such practices [1]. Although evidenced in emerging policies and strategies at both EU and national levels, processes of urban development largely preclude the meaningful participation of urban inhabitants and lead to arduous disputes during regeneration projects. While socially engaged architectural practice is evident in Ireland [2], formal structures for community participation in built environment regeneration projects remain inadequate [3].

TEST SITE is a socially engaged architecture project responding to a derelict site earmarked for urban regeneration on Kyrl’s Quay, Cork city centre [4]. Located on the central island of Cork city centre, the Kyrl’s Quay site is home to a wealth of natural and industrial heritage, neither of which are protected under current development standards. Combining art, architecture, and ecology, the TEST SITE project acts as a temporary agora to encourage public collaboration with the city, in particular this vacant site. Co-created with artist Aoife Desmond, the project encompasses a practice that is person-centred and co-designed. The project is dedicated to the examination, and promotion, of diverse and sustained social engagement within the built environment. It functions as a curated public meeting space facilitating discussions, workshops, and social activities that bring people together centred around themes such as heritage, identity, and the concept of belonging to a specific space. TEST SITE recognises the value of situated knowledge in the delivery of equitable urban development; the value of both expert-by-experience and expert-by-specialism knowledge.

Emergent Ecology Herbal Tincture Making Workshop with Jo Goodyear. Image credit: TEST SITE

Expert-by-specialism knowledge is primarily leveraged in making decisions concerning long-term urban development strategies in the built environment. Decisions are predominantly informed by quantitative data sets such as that gathered by sensors and monitors. Expert-by-experience knowledge, also referred to as lay or community knowledge [5], can exhibit heterogeneity when acquired through collective explorations such as living labs. Within urban neighbourhoods, living labs are projects that occur amid communities, incorporating collaborative and participatory processes. These processes involve a spectrum of diverse and underrepresented spatial experiences, providing essential insights for achieving urban development that is both equitable and resilient.

In her novel Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi botanist, describes the shifting responses and actions of students to scientific instruments during academic botanical field trips – how they recurrently shy away from their own senses and become heavily reliant on the readings of scientific instruments [6]. Through a series of grounding and landing activities, Kimmerer guides students to return focus to understanding and trusting their lived sense of place and not just the measurements and readings of the scientific equipment employed.

The intention behind activities undertaken at TEST SITE could be considered as an urban equivalent to Kimmerer’s field trip grounding activities, moving from a reliance on policy and quantitative data alone towards knowledge building that includes engagement with complex and varied hands-on comprehension of the urban built environment. The project works from the position that the human experience of urban inhabitants is a valid and crucial source of data in need of robust and formal consideration in relation to the long-term strategies for sustainable and equitable urban development.

Ecology Mapping Participatory Knowledge Mapping Workshop with Niamh Ní Dhuill. Image credit: TEST SITE

Lived experiences are fleeting and ephemeral. In order to be drawn upon in a formal capacity, it is crucial to capture and translate the lived experience of the protagonist of the built environment into spatial knowledge [7]. TEST SITE is undertaken from the informed position that a socially engaged practice of architecture can capture ephemeral and complex socio-spatial qualities of the built environment, as experienced by urban dwellers. With this comes the need to develop processes that capture the situated learnings that emerge through hands-on experience of a place.

One such means is to co-produce socio-spatial representations [8]. Tangible and lasting lessons emerge from temporary spatial activations once a structured process of reflection and representation is instigated to complement ongoing activations.

Through TEST SITE we continue to test methods that encompass the contributions of wide and varied voices; be they regular contributors, collaborators or once-off visitors from extended civil society. Ultimately intending to expand the complex web of knowledge that can shape long term strategies and approaches to sustainably developing our local built environment.

Returning to and concluding with the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, she describes the importance that the Potawatomi elders place on ceremonies as a means of “remembering to remember” [9]. Perhaps temporary activations of vacant, derelict, and public land can act as a form of ceremony and learning in the built environment; a means of remembering to remember and value the lived experiences of a city's residents when formulating plans and strategies for its future.

26/2/2024
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TEST SITE is an initiative blending art, architecture, and ecology to foster public engagement in urban regeneration in Cork city. Highlighting the gap between policy and participatory practice, it showcases how co-designed projects can integrate community knowledge into sustainable urban development, offering a model for inclusive planning in shaping the cities of the future.

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