Signs and the city: the work of Gregor Graf

28 June 2008 | blog, cities, comment, place making, strategy

Linz Petrol Filling Station by Gregor Graf

The Spring 2008 edition of JoLA, the excellent peer-reviewed academic Journal of Landscape Architecture established by the European Council of Landscape Architecture Schools, contains an article on the work of Gregor Graf which raises the question, “How do we read a city without signs?”. With a mixture of purist medium format photography and Photoshop, Graf has painstakingly deleted all traces of language and signage from view – as well as people and cars. His series of images featuring London, Linz and Warsaw are striking and unreal. It’s a wonderful collection of images linked here and on his site here (look for the Hidden Town link). The imagery is uncannily close to some contemporary techniques of urban representation employed by architects – minus the beautiful people.

São Paulo: remains of advertisements removed by the city authorities
His work is a step further in the direction pioneered by São Paulo where in 2006, city officials enacted a radical ban on almost all outdoor advertising. Photographer and typographer Tony de Marco documented the new ad-free world of São Paulo, publishing a sequence of images on Flickr. A city stripped of advertising with no posters, flyers or advertisements on buses or trains sounds like an Adbusters dream but it became a reality in 2007.

No signs and the city.
The implication of these unreal and real examples is that in the absence of signs, people need to re-learn what was once recognisable city terrain, marked out urban space, defined focal points and obvious boundaries. One of the São Paulo experiences was that it was initially easy for people to get lost when well known reference points – such as 48-sheet hoardings – were removed. Of course, residents were quick to re-orientate themselves around landmarks, buildings and urban form very much in the way that architects, urbanists and writers on the city would like them to behave.

the Architect’s Dream by Thomas More

Perhaps Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown have more to offer here than they are given credit for. Their book Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time explores Venturi’s recurring affair with pluralism, multiculturalism, symbolism, iconograohy and popular culture. It is an important work that dissolves professional boundaries and broadens our view of urbanism – often in a disturbing way.

the Architect’s Dream by Thomas More augmented by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates

While urban designers and town makers concentrate on producing legible urban form through sequences of squares, streets, edges and landmarks (after Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City), the easy-read of contemporary urban areas will often be through advertisements and signs. Looking at the freshness and clarity of Graf’s ad-and-sign-free images set against Venturi’s challenging and dissonant work it is hard to imagine common ground between the two. But that may be exactly what towns and cities need in the 21st century.

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