If you want to make a difference to the quality of Britain’s environment, let’s have a crack at our ungenerous, confusing and arbitrary signage
It is good to see that CABE is on the street furniture case. If ever you need an example of the lack of joined-up thinking in our industry, you only need open your front door. English Heritage, the authority that insists that you get the bolection mouldings right on the side of that front door that nobody ever sees, seems powerless to stop the local council sticking up some horrible stove enamelled steel sign directly outside the one that everyone does. Not only do the shafts of these ugly things have the horrible spiky stingray tail coatings over them, but they seem to arrive with one of the corners dog-eared and are never fitted quite vertical.
Big organisations hire teams of professional designers to deal with signage, and when they work closely with the architects, not only does the building work better from a user’s point of view, but the signage contributes to the aesthetic of the whole. The London Underground is a famous example of this, as is the National Theatre. And the classical Roman typeface of the signage inside the Lloyd’s building is a brilliant foil to the Dan Dare oil rig imagery of the building itself. On the other hand, the combination of signage and adformation at Heathrow is bewildering.
There seems to be no organisation looking after our streetscapes. Of course the health and road safety Nazis and the traffic Stasi can stick up signs wherever they want. Long gone are the days of a simple graphic of a bloke with a shovel and a pile of dirt. The directions for Ken Livingstone’s bus lanes are the length of a Daily Telegraph leader, and you can watch befuddled motorists career into each other as they try to read them at 30 miles an hour.
Signage is definitely something they do better in other bits of Europe. You can get off the ferry in Calais and drive yourself 600 km to a tiny gîte outside a hamlet in the Gironde without needing to ask directions. And if you want the scenic route, signs tell you how to find that as well.
Try that coming off the Eurostar in Kent. First the visitor suffers from the “miss out the appropriate direction sign at every fourth roundabout” initiative. Then they face the challenge of trying to work out whether there is a sign on each corner at every street junction but they just can’t see it, or whether some genius in the local authority has used his signage budget to let us know that “This council is an equal opportunities employer” instead.
The health and road safety Nazis and the traffic Stasi can stick up signs wherever they want
This sort of exercise is so simple to organise, and so effective, and with a little thought can make such an attractive contribution to the environment. There just seems to be no central will – which is ridiculous when signage and street furniture are such an important part of the tourist experience.
And when the furniture is standardised, it looks horrible. Time was, every borough in the country could have its own traffic lights. You can still see some of the varieties in the older thoroughfares: pretty 1920s classical cast-iron numbers with a curling flame or a mercury wing at the top. Now all traffic light housings are identical. Street railings are worse. These used to be elegant without necessarily being fabulously ornamental, but now they’re just relentless vertical steel versions of the double yellow line. And watch as the toxic virus of the Celcon interlocking concrete paviour kills off local high streets in the interests of pedestrianisation.
There was a story about an ancient village whose council was so fed up with having its pretty Georgian door cases and wrought-iron balconies obscured by a plethora of highways, transport, police and parking information that they decided (somehow) they would do away with all signs relating to traffic and record the effect. What happened was that motorists were obliged to slow down, and think about what they were supposed to be doing. After four months, the monitors recorded no increase in accidents, but did note a beneficial effect on the visual sensitivities and well-being of everyone who lived there. An excellent example of the “less is more” philosophy and its “more is less” corollary – and a welcome antidote to the visual diarrhoea that we suffer most of the time we venture out.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London