Writing by Types
by Justine Clark

 

The Wellington Writers Walk lifts typography off the page and expands it into the public domain.

Wellington is not an easy place to live in. The vertiginous landscape, cold southerly winds, frequent rain and gusts that almost knock pedestrians over combine to make an environment in which one must often work hard simply to keep going. This difficulty is balanced by the pleasures of the city itself, and of crisp, calm, clear days, the bush-clad topography, the harbour and the rugged south coast. The city demands both physical and intellectual engagement, and the sheer difficulty of living here exacts a kind of determined affection from the city’s inhabitants.

This hard-won, slightly ironic affection is captured by a series of eleven large-scale typographic works newly installed around the city’s waterfront – one of its principal public spaces. These form the Wellington Writers Walk, an initiative of the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The society established the Writers Walk to help make writing publicly visible and, in doing so, to celebrate both the city and its authors. Each installation presents a quotation from a significant New Zealand writer with strong connections to the city, and most of these excerpts refer to the city in some way. These are engaging and often wry responses to the city, presented on large, thoughtfully situated concrete slabs.

The outcome is a fine example of how a designer can, with determination and the support of all involved, push a project well beyond the client’s initial expectations. Where the instigators imagined a series of small bronze plaques set in Civic Square, designer and typographer Catherine Griffiths saw the opportunity for a much tougher, more powerful approach, one that would use typographic design to complement the strength of the writing. She proposed a series of large cast concrete slabs that spill out of Civic Square, across the City to Sea Bridge, and onto the waterfront. The completed project is also an example of a highly successful collaboration.

Griffiths’ ideas could not have been realised in this refined and resolved way without the input of John Hardwick-Smith of Athfield Architects, model-maker Dominic Taylor and Ron Seymour of Stresscrete, who cast the concrete. Griffiths has used the project to explore the possibilities of “public typography” and to develop the potential of cast concrete as a medium for typographic practice. The overt physicality of this material presents different opportunities from the more usual media of ink on paper. The play of light and shadow across a three-dimensional surface reveals shifting qualities in the type, and thereby in the words. As sites for shadow play, the panels also register changes in light quality, in time of day and so on. But the material here is not just concrete – the words and letterforms must also be understood as the matter from which these works are made.

For Griffiths, the design had to be worthy of the writers’ strong and beautiful words. Her intimate knowledge of the particular characters of different typefaces allowed her to select fonts according to an intuitive response to the texts. The qualities of the selected fonts – Helvetica Extra Compressed and Optima – work to reinforce the content and sensibilities of the texts. The two typefaces are articulated differently. The texts set in Helvetica Extra Compressed were cast as individual letterforms [100 mm high x 35 mm deep] and then hand-set and fixed onto concrete panels. The letterforms sit proud, casting shadows that make apparent the curious forms of the negative spaces between letters. The texts set in Optima, with its slight flare tending towards a serif, were cast as integral parts of the concrete panel – imprinted 10 mm deep they allow shadows to fall and rainwater to pool. At a glance these panels resemble more traditional forms of “public typography” – words carved into the stone surfaces of buildings or memorials. However, here the serif – developed from the exigencies of carving in stone – has been cast, straight-sided, into the plasticity of concrete. This is slightly strange, but the shift in material and mode of production might also be read as another level at which the Writers Walk reinvigorates and reinterprets the older tradition of inscribing the built environment.

The scale and materiality of the concrete slabs work well here on the waterfront, with its residual role as a working port and the sometimes tough, sometimes beautiful physical environment. The content of the quotations is often reinforced by the location of the slabs, but this is never literal. The piece from Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Wind Blows” is hard up against the sea edge in a place that is usually breezy. To read it, one faces out to sea, body tilted against the wind, coat flying [real or imagined]. The passage from Vincent O’Sullivan’s poem “Driving South with Lucy to the Big Blue Hills” is located at the base of the City to Sea Bridge. It is read against the hum of traffic behind – audible but invisible. The slab containing an excerpt from Denis Glover’s “Wellington Harbour is a Laundry” is cast upon the rocks, like a piece of flotsam, with the harbour, rarely flat, always present beyond.

The particular relationships between the slabs and their sites are also very successful, with each slab skilfully located to take full advantage of the found conditions of each site. Bill Manhire’s “I live at the edge / of the universe, / like everybody else” [from his poem “Milky Way Bar”] sits within an existing gap in a wharf structure, below the constructed ground plane, while the piece from James K. Baxter’s “The Maori Jesus” floats in the Te Papa lagoon, just beneath or just above the water, according to the tide. Others jut, overhang, lean or tilt just the right amount. This detailed placement design was the responsibility of architect John Hardwick-Smith, who expanded and explored to their fullest potential the locations identified by Griffiths and Eirlys Hunter [Writers Walk convenor]. The scale of the slabs is also an outcome of Hardwick-Smith’s involvement: on seeing the proposal, he suggested they could be even bigger.

The waterfront is one of Wellington’s key public spaces. On a sunny day the city empties to stroll along the promenade that stretches uninterrupted from the end of Oriental Bay to the working wharves. In less benign weather the waterfront is still much used as a route from inner suburbs to the inner city and the parliamentary zone. This means that the works will be encountered in the course of both leisurely promenades and brisk walks, in all kinds of weather. Sometimes they will be lingered over, at other times they will be glanced at quickly as a pedestrian strides past, head into the wind.

The Writers Walk engages this diverse public in a kind of interactivity that is both thoughtful and active. These words require reflection. Having sought out the slabs, or stumbled across them by accident, the viewer/reader is invited to contemplate what this city is. The works are also introducing an element of impromptu performance: as people speak the words aloud to themselves and each other – savouring the words, exploring the ideas – literature comes to life on the waterfront.

Some of the quotations appear readily accessible; others, like the excerpt from Baxter’s “The Maori Jesus”, may benefit from local knowledge. For those who want to know more, an equally well-designed booklet describes the project, gives brief information about each of the writers and provides a map of good bookshops in the city. Having engaged with these writers in the public realm, the reader is invited to pursue them privately.

This project also has a bigger role to play in Wellington’s waterfront. It is a highly contested space, the development of which has been marked by endless skirmishes between the wellconnected, well-heeled lobby group, Waterfront Watch, and the responsible authority, Lambton Harbour Management. In the process, architects – many of whom have struggled to improve the public spaces of the waterfront for decades – have been conflated with “greedy” developers, and Waterfront Watch has promoted simplistic schemes against more sophisticated, evolving approaches to concept planning. The Writers Walk installations have snuck onto the waterfront in the midst of this debate and, perhaps unwittingly, they make an important contribution to it. By demonstrating that design need not be literal and that a lyrical but tough project can be a great success, this work will, I hope, invite the broader public to begin trusting designers again. Crossing between disciplines, this is a small project that makes a significant contribution to the life of the city.

Justine Clark / Artichoke

 

Justine Clark is editor of Architecture Australia. An architectural researcher, writer and historian, she has designed and curated a number of architectural exhibitions, taught architectural design, history and theory in New Zealand and Australia and has been a visiting lecturer and critic at a range of Australian universities. In 2000 she co-authored with Dr Paul Walker the book Looking for the Local: Architecture and the New Zealand Modern (VUP, 2000).

Photographs copyright Bruce Connew © 2001


 

04 writing & critique


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Q&A TBI
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by Catherine Griffiths
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Inner-City Modality
by Mercedes Vicente
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Beautiful World of Typography
by Catherine Griffiths
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For the record
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Locating Our Feet
by Catherine Griffiths
Threaded, NZ, Oct 2008

Notes on Feijoa
by Catherine Griffiths
ProDesign, NZ, Apr 2007

Life in Italics
by Helen Walters
Print, New York, Sep-Oct 2006

Writing by Types
by Justine Clark
Artichoke, Australia, Apr 2003

 


Writing by Types
by Justine Clark



Artichoke Magazine, Australia, April 2003

related links

Wellington Writers Walk


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