Material directions

A flurry of new arts centres, and the refurbishment of an old one, have prompted some very different approaches to signage. Sarah Frater asks the designers about their choices, which range from concrete and bronze to all things digital

Think of a ballet company, and most people think of tutus, tiaras and polite visual branding. Many classical troupes conform to this stereotype, but not Scottish Ballet, whose new home on Glasgow’s Pollock Shaw Street points in a much grittier direction. The purpose-built, three-storey £11m building features robust exterior cladding and a main sign cast in concrete. It’s a material that can take a ‘good kicking’, as project architect Clive Albert of Edinburgh practice Malcolm Fraser puts it. And with good reason. The building is in a ‘challenging’ location, with vandalism, vagrancy and traffic congestion persistent problems.

As well as specifying a material impervious to damage, Albert also designed it to be resistant to graffiti and fly-posting. The Scottish Ballet sign is set in a panel with deep vertical ribbing. This produces a sculptural effect similar to low relief, which helps prevent posters being attached. Cast by Creagh Concrete, the panel is also specially treated so that it can be cleaned of graffiti.

If these practical matters steered Albert’s choice of material, it also confounds our expectations of a ballet troupe. Unlike the gilded crests and heralds that adorn the signs of most companies, the words Scottish Ballet are set in plain Helvetica. Did Albert experience any resistance to his radical approach to Scottish Ballet’s visual identity? All he’ll say is that while the building is not a public venue (it houses rehearsal studios, offices and technical and wardrobe space), it is a national institution ‘with a very public face’.

No such concerns for the privately owned Kings Place, the new £100m London arts and music venue close to King’s Cross station. Developed by Parabola Land, it includes a purpose-built concert hall, London’s first for 20-plus years, as well as eateries and offices, plus a new London base for the Pangolin gallery, one of the few specialising in contemporary bronze sculpture.

‘We picked up the bronze theme in the directory panels and internal signage,’ explains Katja Thielen, creative director of Together Design, which, with Trickett Associates, created the front-of-house and backstage signage and wayfinding.

Three floor-to-ceiling, flush-to-wall panels, some 4m high and 1m wide, are positioned on the three public floors. They have a matt, slightly texturised finish, and will patinate with age, says Thielen. ‘They are intended to evoke the weight and substance of sculpture,’ she says. ‘They’re not flimsy stick-ons.’ Their directory information is set in Avenir, a typeface repeated in the individually cast bronze letters, 20-30cm high, used for the floor and auditorium signage.

Backstage, Together Design created the signage to guide musicians to their dressing rooms and the stage. These feature power-coated aluminium panels with iridescent vinyl lettering, again in Avenir. Other elements of the project include the stairway signs, with yellow Perspex lettering that echoes the stripes on the steps, and temporary signage pedestals positioned outside the auditoriums.

Thielen emphasises the bespoke project’s premium values, although she is quick to emphasise they’re backed by a detailed understanding of the customer journey through the venue. ‘We have to know the decision points,’ she says, ‘how people approach the centre, and what they do when they are in it, before we start thinking about the look and feel of the signs themselves.’

It’s a consideration you can multiply a thousandfold for the redevelopment of New York’s Lincoln Center. The multidisciplinary Diller Scofidio & Refro is in charge of the massive overhaul to the 6.5ha performing arts campus, a project so vast – the budget is £616m – that multiple design partners are, understandably, involved.

The project has a complexity of scale that Abby Okin, a producer for Imaginary Forces, one of DS&R’s partners, attributes to not only the size of the site, but also to the fact that 12 arts institutions make it their home. These include The Juilliard School, New York City Ballet and The Metropolitan Opera. All have offices and rehearsal space. All have programmes of events, with venues like the Alice Tully Hall one of the busiest concert venues in the US.

For a project of this scale, the term ‘infoscape’ replaces words like signs and wayfinding. A roster of sign and wayfinding specialists are involved, with Imaginary Forces developing ‘small bits of it’, as Okin describes it. This includes content for the so-called ‘infopeel’. This is an architectural awning at the approach to the Alice Tully Hall on Broadway/65th Street that features a cluster of LCD displays. These screen programme and event information, both text and images, and although they’re not fully interactive, they do provide scrollable screens that can be updated. ‘Digital is the only way of managing a project of this scale,’ says Okin, whose other projects include work for the Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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