The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'modernism'

2013/2/19

Bob Stanley, one third of indie-dance Londonists Saint Etienne and occasional music journalist, writes in The Quietus about the ideology of modern architecture:

I live in High Point. It was built in 1935 by the Tecton Group. Berthold Lubetkin was the architect. It's the best modernist block of flats in Britain. He deliberately designed it so that anyone who was sniffy about modernism would walk in and instantly be impressed by the huge lobby. The flats are blank canvases, it's got underfloor heating and there's no clutter. I can't imagine living anywhere better. There's so much light, which is really important. The Victorians thought having too much light was wrong, they equated it with a liberal lifestyle. So in the 80s when you got that architecture coming back it made sense, this Thatcherite, self-flagellating idea that you shouldn't have too much light in the house. That seems to have stuck with the Barrett Homes style of building.
There was a GLC plan to have all cars at ground floor level, and all people at first floor level, all across London, but it was kept secret, which is something we want to make a film about. It was called the pedway, and the only place you can really see it now is the Barbican. I don't think I'd have wanted the whole of London to be like that, but the areas that were completely decimated in East London, that would have been really interesting if they'd persisted. Instead it's a mess, one massive tower block in the middle of an area of grass, and then a little old Victorian street that goes around like that, and stops with a couple of bollards at the end. What a mess.

architecture culture london modernism saint etienne thatcherism-blairism 0

2012/4/3

The latest word in the Helvetica debate: Neue Haas Grotesk, a new digitisation of Max Miedinger's original typeface (which was originally named that, and only renamed to Helvetica by the marketing department in 1960 or so to cash in on the fad for Swiss modernist design):

The digital version of Helvetica that everyone knows and uses today is quite different from the typeface’s pre-digital design from 1957. Originally released as Neue Haas Grotesk, many of the features that made it a Modernist favorite have been lost in translation over the years from one typesetting technology to the next.
The Helvetica obliques that come installed on every Mac today were generated mechanically by skewing regular upright forms 12°. Neue Haas Grotesk’s obliques have been properly corrected to have smoother curves, even stroke weights, and overall visual harmony.
The full 22-style family, which includes alternate character forms, will cost you US$616.00; about twice as much as Helvetica-discontent Bruno Maag's Aktiv Grotesk (though less per individual weight), but considerably less than the electronic revival of Rail Alphabet (which seems to have been created to cash in on British Rail/NHS nostalgists with deep pockets). Either way, it probably will not put an end to the debate over Helvetica's place in the canon of modern graphic design; whether it is justifiably a touchstone of High Modernism or a shoddy, opportunistically made example of the typographical grotesk which just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

design helvetica modernism typography 0

2011/3/30

One of the more unexpected products of the final days of the Soviet Union was an explosion of fantastic modernist architecture. With the iron chain of Communist totalitarianism crumbling and the velvet leash of the almighty market still in the future, the USSR's architects had a free hand to go wild, which they did, resulting in a wave of spectacular-looking government ministries, polytechnic institutes and other facilities scattered around the various peripheries of the empire, and looking like they were dropped from space:

These fascinating things, built in prominent locations, were cathedral-like in their ambitions as well as their size. Chaubin concocted a game around his photograph of the Palace of Weddings in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. He would show it to people and ask them what it could be: a monastery, a power station, maybe even a giant laboratory? "No one guessed it was a registry office for weddings built on a huge scale to encourage people away from getting married in churches."
The buildings are catalogued in a new book by a French photographer, Frédéric Chaubin, who spent several years finding and recording them. The book may be the last chance to see many of them, which are likely to fall prey to the financial ambitions of oligarchs and property developers. There is a slideshow here.

architecture communism history modernism ussr 0

2010/7/9

Swiss typographer Bruno Maag has nothing kind to say about Helvetica; the supposed apotheosis of High Modernism and the Swiss/International Style is, in his opinion, a greatly inferior typeface promoted to dominance by a powerful marketing machine over the far superior Univers, and raved about by the clueless (and not only that, but typically clueless Britons and Americans) who bought the gimmick that it is somehow an authentic example of Swiss Modernist design:

What galled me most in the movie [Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica] was when Massimo Vignelli said that Helvetica was a Modernist typeface – No! No! Helvetica is anything but Modernist, Clearly it has its roots in Akzidenz Grotesk and that was designed in 1899, which is Victorian as far as I am concerned. Akzidenz is a fantastic font but it’s not Modernist, it’s got a really antique feel about it, which again shows that Max Miedinger [Helvetica’s designer] didn't have a clue about type design. He was the salesman at [foundry] Haas’sche Schriftgießerei for Christ’s sake.
This is reminiscent of the criticisms of Arial, that Helvetica knockoff used by people who aren't into fonts but have a Windows PC and want to make something look modern and/or clean. While it's universally acknowledged that Arial is a bastardisation of Monotype Grotesque shoehorned into Helvetica-like spacings, and thus not an authentic example of the High Modernist typography it gets mistaken for, the claim that Helvetica is not authentically Modernist is bound to set the cat among the pigeons more; it's not that long since Helvetica's 50th anniversary, which coincided with commemorative books, hagiographic articles and, of course, Gary Hustwit's documentary, which conspired to beatify the sans-serif. It does make some sense, though; I've seen claims that Helvetica's roots (and those of Akzidenz Grotesk and the grotesks which preceded it) lie in 19th-century hand-painted shop signage more than in clean Modernism.

Bruno Maag so detests Helvetica that he created a Modernist typeface, Aktiv Grotesk, to replace it. It looks about halfway between Helvetica and Univers:

(via Daring Fireball) aktiv grotesk contrarianism design helvetica modernism typography 1

2010/4/27

Using Star Wars as a metaphor for the real world isn't merely for Microsoft/RIAA-hating Slashdot penguinistas; witness Star Wars Modern, an at once illuminating and slightly odd blog by Brooklyn-based sculptor John Powers. Keenly interested in art and culture and steeped in modernism (in the aesthetic and philosophical sense), Powers nonetheless uses Star Wars' good-vs.-evil dualism (which, he argues, came from the heavy mood of Nixon/Vietnam War-era America, with the new counterculture against The Man) to partition the world into Jedi and Sith.

And like Nixon, the Sith perfectly represent a particular strain of American authority: Cold Warriors. Not just the violence and paranoia of America’s anti-communist foreign policy, but their repressive and absolutist domestic policies: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?”
Even the world building efforts of the cold warriors were perfectly embodied by Lucas and his crew. The top-down Utopian art, architecture and urbanism of the Cold Warriors were elegantly re-imaged as the Deathstar.
The Sith, we learn, are those who want control and chains of authority, and fear chaos above all. They include among their ranks Richard Nixon (obviously) and Le Corbusier (which stands to reason; he was a proponent of centralised architectures of control and dedicated his 1935 book/manifesto The Radiant City "To Authority"). The Jedi, meanwhile, are the dissenters, he lists them as "Phreaks and Yippies; draft resisters and Feminists; Diggers and Black Panthers", and places Martin Luther King and Rem Koolhaas among their number. So not too far from the Penguinheads' Jedi-Sith dichotomy (RMS and Linus are Jedi, while Darth Gates, patent trolls and the forces of Big Copyright are Sith; where Steve Jobs and Ayn Rand stand is a matter for lengthy, intractable flame wars), only with a better sense of aesthetics.

(It seems that what Lucas may have contributed to culture here is a catchy two-word name for the cultural schism of the second half of the 20th century, for the collapse of the power of authoritarianism from 1945 onwards, and the Empire striking back from the 1970s onwards, and the underlying motif of order vs. chaos, authority vs. freedom (which recurs in a lot of cultural artefacts of the time—Discordianism, for one, and the plots of much of the fiction of the time). Perhaps "Sith" and "Jedi" are catchier terms than "authoritarianism" and "freedom" or less bound to a specific time and milieu than "the Man" and "the freaks"—at least, in a world where science fiction and other geeky niches have broken into the mainstream.)

Anyway, Star Wars Modern has a number of interesting (and somewhat lengthy) posts on various topics falling in the area between Modernism and Star Wars, such as the portrayals of art and artists in Hollywood films, the Hollywood serial killer archetype as studio artist, and a three-part back-and-forth debate, triggered by an apocryphal account of Goebbels having designed the original Helvetica, about (small-f) fascism and modernist typography.

authoritarianism culture culture war discordianism modernism star wars typography 0

2009/9/19

There is now an electronic version of Rail Alphabet, the high-Modernist typeface designed in 1965 by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for British Rail and used extensively on signage of British public institutions of the period (the NHS and various airports also used it). And just in time to ride the wave of nostalgia for pre-Thatcherite public institutions.

Unfortunately, at £100 per weight (and £1,000 for the whole set!), it is a bit on the pricy side; if that's out of your price range, you may wish to consider just using Helvetica and hoping that nobody notices. (And, to be honest, few people would be able to tell the difference.)

(Note that if you decide to be even more thrifty and use Arial, people will laugh at you.)

And here is a detailed article on the evolution of the London Underground typeface, from Edward Johnston's 1920s original (which influenced the design of Gill Sans), to its subtle redesign by Japanese typographer Elichi Kono in the 1970s (Kono's account appears here), and other adaptations made recently as it was adopted across the entire London transport system.

(via MeFi) british rail design helvetica london modernism typography 4

2009/6/21

A few interesting posts from LiveJournal: Momus writes about the nihilism of heat:

In hot places, human life seems to be worth less. Iraq is a place where an army of Mersaults in the form of soldiers and "contractors" are constantly on the brink of breaching their own culture's taboos, driven to acts of violence by the murderous heat. Under the sun, nothing matters any more.
In hot places, human life seems to be worth less. Iraq is a place where an army of Mersaults in the form of soldiers and "contractors" are constantly on the brink of breaching their own culture's taboos, driven to acts of violence by the murderous heat. Under the sun, nothing matters any more.
Some say that cultural psychology changes as you move closer to the equator. In Discovering Psychology with Philip Zimbardo, a precis of a film about cultural psychology made for the University of Stanford, James Jones of the University of Delaware argues that a way of being has evolved near the equator featuring particular uses of time, rhythm, improvisation, orality, and spirituality. What he describes is a failure to defer gratification:
And Lord Whimsy (author of The Affected Provincial's Companion) examines cod-Victorianism (think steampunk, goth and McSweeney's-esque retro typography) and cod-Modernism (think Shibuya-kei, Mod revivalism and, for want of a better word, Helvetipunk):
Cod-Vic usually has an element of knowing perversity to it, relishing its bad taste rather than recoiling from it. Cod-Vic has also opened the floodgates to a host of one-liners, cheap novelties, and dead ends--some delightful, others less so. The most successful Cod-Vic offerings seem to strike a deft balance, borrowing from overwrought Victorian forms while maintaining a modern crispness and rigor.
Cod-Mod is another form of retro, but an altogether less problematic one than Cod-Vic since its clean lines, unadorned materials and simple color schemes lend a laid-back, contemporary air of unaffected sophistication, making it much easier to defend as an aesthetic. Cod-mod has been mined heavily by indie music (Camera Obscura and Belle & Sebastian, anyone?), as well as interior design types like Jonathan Adler and film directors like Wes Anderson. Oh yeah, and Ikea.

(via imomus, lord_whimsy) culture design heat helvetipunk modernism psychology society steampunk 0

2009/6/16

Controversy has erupted in Britain after it emerged that Prince Charles used his personal influence with Qatari royalty to sack modernist architect Lord Richard Rogers from a development in London. Charles has been an outspoken critic of modern architecture and advocate of neo-traditionalist styles, and even created a model village to showcase his ideas about "proper" architecture, and then designed (or perhaps art-directed) the fire station. Charles' preferred replacement for Rogers is Quinlan Terry, a peddler of honey-hued neo-classicist kitsch.

As worthy of comment as Charles' architectural preferences are, there is more at stake. For one, Britain's constitutional monarch is meant to refrain from exercising powers over the day-to-day business of government. (This is the flipside of the monarch being above the sort of probing criticism that politicians and policymakers should expect; in a modern society, hereditary authority should be at most purely ceremonial.) Charles is not the monarch, but is next in line to be, and this case is worrying. Whilst his preferences for chocolate-box architecture may be quaint or risible, he is also an advocate of potentially harmful pseudoscientific theories such as homeopathy. Were he to grow comfortable with using his influence to guide the system, could we expect to see, for example, NHS funds being diverted away from tested medical care and into the pockets of quacks and charlatans? And would the prospect of his interventions in, say, education or transport or finance, should he decide to have a hand at such, be any less troubling?

architecture conservatism modernism monarchy prince charles traditionalism 1

2009/1/21

Young British graphic designer Olly Moss (perhaps best known for his Threadless T-shirts) has now posted Swiss Modernist-influenced alternate cover art for video games and similarly Modernistic, Helvetica-intensive alternative movie posters:

Meanwhile, Kyle Gabler, the composer of the soundtrack for the videogame World Of Goo has made it available as a free download. Go and get it; it's a nice piece of classic cinematic scoring, equal parts vintage Morricone/Herrmann/Schifrin and Danny Elfman gingerbread-house oogie/spookyisms.

(via Boing Boing) design helvetica modernism mp3s music olly moss threadless videogames world of goo 0

2008/6/17

I just watched the film Helvetica, a documentary about the eponymous typeface. In reality, it was more than just a film about a typeface, but rather one about visual design, aesthetics and ideology in the past half-century, seen through one element so ubiquitous that it is virtually a mirror. (Helvetica's ubiquity is the key; I imagine that one could as easily have made a film titled, say, "Water", ostensibly about the subject of its title, and had it encompass anything and everything.)

The film describes the typeface Helvetica and its origins in the Haas type foundry in Switzerland, as a cleaned-up version of German sans-serifs like Akzidenz Grotesk, and the way that, either by being in the zeitgeist or happening to embody an objectively optimal design, it caught the moment, being seen as fresh and clean compared to the mess of 1950s-vintage graphic design (which would now be considered "retro" and "groovy") and was propelled to ubiquity, becoming considered boring and/or corporate, mutilated by the grunge typographers of the 1990s, and rediscovered by a new generation of designers reclaiming modernism. The film puts forward multiple points of view (Helvetica was in the right place at the right time; Helvetica stumbled onto a timeless optimum; Helvetica carries with it the core values of the modern mindset; Helvetica is ideologically oppressive/corporate/right-wing (Paula Scher asserted that it was linked to the Vietnam War); Helvetica is beautiful; Helvetica is ugly), in the form of interviews with various key designers and figures, both young and old (these have included Matthew Carter, Neville Brody, David Carson, Hoefler and Frere-Jones and so on). (Other than shedding light—from various angles and of various colours—on the legacy of Helvetica, the interviewees tell us other interesting things; for one, I found Matthew Carter's description of his typeface design strategy quite informative.) All this is intercut with extensive stills and footage of Helvetica in the modern world, which drive home the full extent of its ubiquity. The soundtrack, containing the sort of tastefully minimal post-rock (Sam Prekop, El Ten Eleven and The Album Leaf) that one would associate with neo-modernist graphic design. Alas, there does not appear to be a soundtrack album available for this film.

design film helvetica modernism postmodernism typography 0

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