Straight. And Soft.
Now, I don’t know if it’s because of being so generally loose and floppy-haired and unshaven and late for things, or whether it’s inexplicably at odds with it, but I’m famously one for straight lines and right angles and generally lining things up. Makes me rub my thighs a little.
So at the weekend, away from the studio and normal stuff, I was almost beside myself.
I’ll explain, if I can.
Getting lost for hours in over-working the production on a piece of music is probably one symptom of liking considered engineering. Tidying my studio floor or doing the washing up before I can think straight is probably as much a symptom of putting off work I don’t fancy doing as any neatness compulsion, but it’s there too. But it is, of course, working as a designer that tends to most bring out my nerdy tendency to attach everything to grids.
Lining up, making it match, underscoring uniformity… don’t get me started. Why do I love this? I need to sit down.
In practical terms it’s all about legibility of course – making an ad or a poster or a brochure or a website intuitive to read. It’s about ensuring stuff is easy to use by people.
But I’m hardly a slave to practical, am I? It’s more than that. It’s some weird, personal compulsion to drool over signage and airport graphics and that kind of strictly uniform stuff that is beautiful, precisely because of its functionality.
Which would sound odd if you’d ever actually seen me. You could starch me into a naval dress uniform and rivet me to a deck ladder and I’d still find a way to lean. I don’t usually look right with the top button done up.
But give me the Helvetica family and the colours black and white and a strict No Curves rule and I’m likely to have a ball. A square one.
It is, at risk of puncturing my impending profound thesis on the subject, ultimately all to do with a conviction that the very best design makes a single statement. An immediate, instantly appreciable identity.
Logo, website, advert, car – even a pop tune. With the good stuff, you know instantly that it knows what it is. To me, that clarity shows good creative; it’s what I’m always trying to do.
And, pertinently to this story, I’d say it’s a conviction that certainly applies to one of the hardest but most important things to do this with.
First full week of oh-nine was largely about preparing for a particular branding presentation. A client I’ve been working with for a few years had commissioned Momo to develop the branding for their partners across Europe, and subsequently invited me to present the conclusions to their head office in France, at their annual new year kick-off meeting.
“Hoorah” I remember thinking coolly, as the head of the company was originally rounding on asking me to do this, during his call before Christmas, “..go on, go on – invite me to Paris. Give me an actual reason to say I’m bloody well going to Paris on business…” I don’t believe I said any of this out loud.
“This year we’re meeting somewhere else for a change” he said. “Le Havre. Thought it would make life easier for you. ..Can you make it?”
“Yee-uh. ..Er, yeah. I can make it. To Le Havre.”
“Great. Just great. ..You’ll need to catch the overnight ferry. Meeting’s first thing and you’re on right at the start. See you then” he said nicely, ringing off.
Despite the uncomfortably rapid from-the-cabin-bunk-straight-into-the-room-full-of-expectant-French-people-who-are-decidedly-unsure-about-this-whole-branding-business segue that morning, my enthusiastic apologies to the room, en Français, for being able to do nothing more than apologise en Français, seemed to work. I saw a few smiles and a few laughs at my universally understood William Shatner impressions. Which I’ll explain some other time. But yes, it was an actual business presentation I was doing.
Caroline was with me on this trip, to prolong the trip into a night away and a subsequent morning properly off, loafing around French cafés. Which is, as you know, largely why I go to work in the first place. We were both welcomed into a friendly environment and fed a smart, friendly three course lunch and encouraged to not worry about clearing off again in the afternoon to enjoy our hotel room without bothering any more about work. I do so love the French.
“Where are you staying tonight?” one of the chaps asked Caroline warmly.
“Le Havre” she answered sweetly. She says his face flickered momentarily.
Given that we were, that morning, in the pretty little seaside town of Trouville, set in the rolling, relaxed Normandy countryside bathed in frosty winter sunshine, he could easily be forgiven for wondering if we were off our bleedin’ chariot.
But here’s the deal. And I mean, who knew.
Le Havre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A whole central chunk of it.
Hard to imagine, as you swoop over the Seine estuary through a forest of lekky pilons and belching refinery chimneys and squatting gas reservoirs, that anything of such impressive-sounding renown should be so well hidden in this busy, traffic-vomitting artery of the channel. But it’s there. Unhidden, once you’ve found it.
Auguste Perret’s vision appears to be one of straight lines. Blocks of right angles and perpendicular lines. And I was sort of in heaven, the more we walked around it.
Now, it’s not the sort of heaven that most people would get. We would have sounded fantastically like we were convincing ourselves, as we wandered and pondered and pontificated on the ponts and quais. UNESCO badged the the city centre in 2005 for its “innovative utilization of concrete’s potential.” But fans of Communist social architecture and/or Thunderbirds might understand.
I was obviously weak at the knees.
The 133-hectare space is, according to UNESCO, “an exceptional example of architecture and town planning of the post-war era” – and it really, distinctively, oddly is.
It’s rare to come across such a large geographical area that seems so born of a single idea. So controlled and planned. For all the variety of details, the whole seemed wonderfully, to my mind, single-minded. Complete.
Msr Perret apparently once employed a cocky young upstart called Le Corbusier. Who learned from who, I don’t know, but wandering around Le Havre is a bit of an architect’s wet dream. Not because it’s any of the finest individual architecture you’ve ever seen, but because of the sheer scale of the vision they managed to actually deliver. It’s a whole fifties toy town. Vast boulevards, arrow-straight to the sea front, large properly square squares – and all of it low, at only five or six stories. It gives you loads of hopeful sky to look at. (..Mercifully distracting you from all the concrete, perhaps. Cynic.)
The merrits of concrete as a material to actually live with are, yes, debatable. And you might also point out that the entire vision here is really of the motor car – it’s all designed to be watched from a moving window, sliding gracefully past in continual, shifting, perpendicular perspectives.
But it feels very airy. And purposeful. With very tall shop frontages, there’s plenty to keep the human eye-level occupied, without looking up. But when you do, from wherever you are, you see the looming, moderno-gothic imposition of Saint Joseph cathedral – which looks like it should peel open robotically and reveal a giant rocket with CCCP and a red star on it. To do what, who knows. Who cares? To just show off.
It’s all quite surreal. But in the sunshine at least, all quite something.
The thing is, something about the clarity of the single idea here is comforting. The design places you well – you can always see where you are in relation to something distinctive, but more than that, you feel you are somewhere very definately sure of itself. Somewhere that knows exactly what it is. And this is a surprisingly fundamental human need – to feel placed.
Our hotel was an unexpected temple to this modern dream – a recently converted Ministry of Finance building. And as a consequence of all those Fibonace squares and perfect proportions, the rooms were huge and angular and just FULL of straight lines. Square taps, rectangular lamps, risque ‘diagonal’ throws. And all with a spa on the other side of the choridor. They had to drag us out of the place.
The thing is, as Caroline and I swapped notes – urban designer to graphic designer – the interlocking issues between the disciplines that we’d so often mused (oh the long winter evenings just fly, etc…) were just obvious, writ large all around us. Space, place, legibility, identity.
And most important, after all, was how the space was being used. For right in the centre of town, set in a vast public square, was the Hotel de Ville – the town hall. It had a huge square clock tower you could place for miles around, and a wide open frontage designed very firmly to do one thing – one especially French thing. Encourage people to gather.
As we stood and watched the growing hoards of people with Palestinian solidarity banners, chanting for ‘les enfants de Gaza’, reminding us of the smashed, chaotic streets and decrepit, jagged, infrastructure of a strip of land so small you can see all it’s boundaries from the top of a tower block, yet has a million and a half people living in it, on top of eachother, locked in and unable to leave, I knew the graphic design of the city we were standing in must be working on some significant level. I stopped looking at it.
I stopped thinking about right angles and straight lines and hard materials and got lost thinking about the soft tissue of people.
We came home feeling oddly clear-headed.