Perception


Can a man be an architect if he has never birthed a building?

The building above was brought into the world by Filip Dujardin, a Belgian photographer who plays in architecture. Dujardin does not construct: He remixes existing buildings, using his camera to steal bits and pieces of the structures around him, then reforming those images into calcified urban growths, orchestrated hodge-podges of styles, ideas, owners, stories, histories. The BLDGBLOG post where I first discovered him showcases some of Dujardin’s more fantastic images. His buildings are tantalizing because they are such believable fiction, such concentrated presentations of the haphazard ways we interact architecturally with our world.

And so it was Filip Dujardin who entered my mind as I toured the buildings of C. Cowles & Company late last semester. (I also thought of Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, which has been sitting on my nightstand, waiting for a free spot in my reading queue.) C. Cowles was founded in New Haven over 160 years ago as a manufacturer of lanterns for horse-drawn carriages. It now manufactures, through five divisions, products as diverse as boiler liquid-level controls and high-volume metal-stamped automotive components, in a factory mutated by time and the requirements of production.

Time is the music to which our buildings waltz. Dujardin is an artist because he can see four-dimensionally, can look backwards and peer forwards, collapsing one hundred and sixty years of human influence into a single photograph. We must all become artists, must imagine our buildings past and future, if we are to have any hope of understanding our relationship with the constructed environment around us. We must all become architects who birth imaginary buildings.

Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.

The New York Times ran an article the other day about the inauguration rehearsal, calling it “momentous and kind of weird.” From a distance, writes Mark Leibovich:

it had the look and feel of the real thing: amplified speeches and announcements could be heard several blocks away, honor guards and color guards and processions of dignitaries (or stand-ins thereof) assembled along the western end of the Capitol. The (actual) Marine Band showed up to play “Hail to the Chief” to honor the (fake) new president.

Such a rehearsal gets at ideas about reality and statecraft: How do we distinguish between this rehearsal inauguration and the real inauguration? Or the real presidential debates and the West Wing presidential debates?  What differentiates the United States of America from the Principality of Sealand? Micronations and contested political statuses and rehearsals like this are all different representations of the same idea: That political legitimacy is more difficult to come by than its trappings. Aesthetic representations of statehood—having a flag carrier, issuing postage stamps, fielding an Olympic team, and, yes, inaugurating your chief executive in a fit of pomp and circumstance— are all, in a way, necessary (see e.g. North Korea, which certainly seems to think they are) but not by themselves sufficient. You can’t run a country on pageantry alone, but these weird fragments of irreality will still pop up in the most serious contexts and at the most serious times.

[Hail to the Faux Chief We Have Chosen as Rehearsal Stand-In via NYTimes]

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The lines and forms we don’t see, the subtle coming-together-ness that happens just at the edge of our vision, just at the fringes of conscious reality.

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At the Walt Disney Studios Park portion of Disneyland Resort Paris, something’s not quite right. Note the curiously flat column on the left, the shadow over the “1” at the top of the building, and the blockiness of part of the sky. This is not, in fact, a façade—this is a custom-printed cover, hung over scaffolding and set 3-4 feet forward of the actual front of the building. (You can see the scaffolding most clearly at the top of the frame, just to the right of the “1”.) The cover exactly duplicates the façade of the building it’s hiding. This is pure Disney: Renovate, but don’t let anyone know about it. The cover not only masks renovation work, it also protects the public from dust or dropped tools.

The seams of our reality, the messages we convince our buildings to send or mask. The messages we are meant to receive, the details we are meant to notice: In an artificially constructed reality, the commonplace or unremarkable messages become all the more important, because they, too, are fraught with meaning, even if they purport not to be.

Last Disneyland Paris post. Back to the city of lights!

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Boardwalk Candy Palace is a candy store in the Main Street USA section of Disneyland Park. The store is an example of the park’s culture of caricature, a result of the park’s filtering of information. Disneyland Resort Paris (1) filters out information incompatible with the resort’s family-friendly image, (2) heightens information in line with the narrative it is presenting and (3) tints the information to make it palatable (or more palatable) to a European audience. You see all of this in Boardwalk Candy Palace—which is essentially just a candy store in a pedestrian mall. 1, incompatibility: The store is decidedly upper-middle class (poor people are very un-Disney, unless they become rich through grit and determination) and the candy presents no health risks. 2, heightening: The neo-Victorian styling is over-the-top, but not out of place in a Disney theme park; the staff wear exaggerated versions of early-20th-century American garb. And 3, tinting:

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American flags in stained glass, wall-sized Atlantic City murals: The store is a testimony to the enduring power of American capitalism (or something). It’s not clear what the store’s message is, just that it is unquestionably American—because America sells. Boardwalk Candy Palace is also an example of the complicated, overlapping influences felt throughout the park: It is a French store (Disneyland Resort Paris) sponsored by a Swiss company (Nestle), selling an American product (Disney candy) to an international audience. Pico Iyer would have a field day.

The entire resort is this weird blend of Europe and America: Ornately and fastidiously detailed (to counter prevailing European concerns that the park would be merely cheap Americana) but selling hyper-Americanism (because cheap Americana sells, and sells well.) It’s a fascinating mish-mash of cultural and aesthetic concerns, manifested as they so often are in architecture.

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Sign in exit corridor at the Star Tours attraction. The attraction is themed as a spaceport, complete with travel posters for Bespin and Endor—and, of course, a consistent signage  system, with its own pictograms.

What’s interesting about this is that the suspension of disbelief only goes so far: The audience’s experience with the Star Wars universe is limited to the movies, so the pictograms for “ground transportation” and “droids” have to reference the movies, not the internal history of the Star Wars universe in order to be properly read. The landspeeder looks like it’s referencing an XP-38 or the X-34 (Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder), while the droid pictograms looks like it’s referencing an R2 unit (like R2-D2). But these are not the only form-factors possible for landspeeders or droids, and while it’s possible that the pictograms representing them are idealized abstractions of the most common type (much as the DOT pictogram for “car” is an idealized abstraction of a sedan) it’s more likely that the sign is meeting its audience half-way.

The landspeeder and droid are not DOT standard (naturally) but the baggage is:

Even in fantasy, the grains of reality; the enmeshment of lies and truth to build a compelling world. It’s theatre—complicated, three-dimensional theatre.

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This sign is fresh: The medium of hand-chalked blackboard is intimately bound up in its message of daily specials. We know (or assume) the information on the sign is fresh because we read the sign as being easily modifiable, and therefore the information it presents necessarily transitory. (Check out those crazy French ‘1’s!)

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And that’s the problem with this sign. It looks static, and we therefore read it and the information it presents as static. This, in turn, led me to do a double-take when presented with the following message: 

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If the medium is static, the message is static. The content of the message becomes obscured under a visual conflict between medium, message, and meaning. This visual contradiction is all the stranger because it’s clear that this sign was developed to always look professional and polished, no matter the message it presents—that’s the point of the slide-in-slide-out placards. Once you realize how the sign works, though, everything clicks into place and the Disney standard of service shines through. The investments that go into making a spatial product; the effort we pour into short-lived worlds.

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A newsstand near the Marais, in central Paris.

Newsstands and billboards across Paris display dynamic advertisements, in which a display panel vertically scrolls through three advertisements. These are similar in concept to the American rotating tri-panel billboards. From a technical standpoint, this is a clever way of maximizing advertising revenue while also saving space—the above newsstand can display three times as many advertisements by using scrolling billboards as it could by using static posted advertisements.

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The same newsstand, moments later. Notice that two of the advertisements have changed.

With all of their activity, urban spaces are necessarily places of staticness and dynamism. When we regard urban spaces four-dimensionally, we can see the different time scales at which urban elements operate. At one end of the scale are geographic features (site is eternal!); at the other, the people moving through space. In between are slung all sorts of quirky elements, from cars to parks to monuments to food carts. These elements are quirky because they mix staticness and dynamism: Traffic, for example, is reliably dynamic, static in its dynamism. Food carts offer a dynamic, temporary spatial product by occupying the same location at the same time of day for a set period of time. (This is a theme I’m planning on exploring more in future state-side posts.) From one side, their positioning is static; from the other, dynamic.

These newsstand advertisements fall into the mix, too. Like traffic, they are reliably static in their dynamism. Change is the only constant.

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Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, early morning.

A trip to another country or region has the power to dig into assumptions and provoke questions about how we choose to structure our lives. Why do our buildings look this way instead of that? How can the alien swap places with the banal, and so quickly? What elements go into forming the complicated, bubbling stew that is our daily existence? The differences are found in the minutiae (power outlets, laundry procedures, elevators) and the substance (city planning, legal codes, methods of communication) of our lives.

This Material World was in Paris visiting friends this last week, a trip that included ample time for on-the-ground research. Paris is a city rich in history and culture, and its information architecture is just as interesting to examine as the architecture of its monuments and museums. Over the next two weeks or so, I’ll be compiling my photos and notes into full-fledged posts, on everything from the Paris Metro to constrained-choice systems. After exhausting the Paris material, the blog (and custom header) will return to its usual more inclusive (American) lens.

A modified version of this post will be retained as an indexed page on this blog, and will include a list of links to Paris-specific posts.

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