09 Jul, 2009

London’s 7/7 memorial

Posted by: admin In: Creative Review

Today sees the unveiling of a permanent memorial to the victims of the London terrorist bombings of July 7 2005. Typographer Phil Baines talks to CR about his involvement

The 7/7 memorial, which was designed by architects Carmody Groarke and commissioned by the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, features 52 pillars (or ‘stellae’), cast in rough textured stainless steel, each representing one of the victims. They are grouped together in four inter-linking clusters reflecting the four incidents, with each bearing an inscription of the date and location of the particular incident that its cluster represents, but not the name of the victim. Apparently, the names were left off in order to suggest the random nature of the attack – that it was indiscriminate. Instead, the names of the victimes are listed on a separate plaque. The memorial is located in the north-east corner of Hyde Park, close to Park Lane and Lover’s Walk.

Baines, who is Professor of Typography at Central St Martins, as well as being a leading typographer in his own right, was responsible for the lettering and its layout on the stellae and the plaque. “I was approached by Carmody Groarke along with two other designers/design groups in September last year, quite late in the whole design process,” he says. “I was selected after a couple of meetings where we discussed the brief, the problems of casting in stainless steel, my work to date, and possible approaches to the job. A full planning application had already been submitted by this point with the only items needing to be resolved were the lettering and the plaque material (carved granite in the application but changed to cast stainless steel shortly after I became involved).”

Drawing for the stellae lettering

What were the main considerations in the design? “From a lettering point of view the process was driven by considerations of practicality and aesthetics. The practical considerations were simply about what kind of shapes would cast well, and a sample casting using the foundry’s standard pattern letters was very informative – the letters shapes degraded slightly on the face as well as the sides, small counters had a tendency to fill-in. Aesthetic considerations centred on a wish by the architects to ‘suggest London’. In discussion we all agreed that we should not use Johnston which is too specifically TfL (the bombs may have targetted the transport network but this is not a TfL memorial) and has some very awkward details if you were to cast it as intended at the required size. One further consideration was that the Project Board had already suggested the serif typefaces Garamond and Perpetua – the latter was in the planning application – but when I saw the sample which used standard pattern letters I knew that neither would work, far too fussy.”

Casting the stellae at Nortons in Sheffield

“I decided to use the 19th Century, un-tutored, signmakers’ sanserif you see on buildings around the city as a starting point and draw a bespoke font for the job,” Baines explains. “The lettering is set in capitals-only to provide maximum character area.”

The plaque contains all 52 victims’ names the setting of which required all 26 letters of the alphabet.

On the plaque: “The centre point before names has a resonance with early inscriptional practice but works better visually with the long lines than full points or commas. The lettering is centred for formality, you couldn’t set it in columns due to the extreme difference in name lengths (from 5 to 30 letters in the first draft). Although we trialled a version with names broken across lines, which reflected the architects’ wish to create a field of names, this was felt to be insensitive by the Project Board. Lines therefore vary in length with the version used being the best balance that could be achieved in the space.”

“It had been decided that the stellae would not be personalised with names but only carry date, time and place of death and that a plaque would state what the memorial’s functional aim and list all the names. On the stellae are: orthography of date (7 July 2005, not the coloquial/MSWord ‘7th July 2005’) and the time as in 24hr clock (to avoid needing AM). A centre point is used as the time divider as it suits the vertical arrangement of letters better than full point. The letters read down like a British book spine.”

What does he hope that people will feel when visiting the monument? “I think they will find it calming, and enjoy the sensation of walking among it (the stellae are 3.5m high, and set at 1m centres). The other thing we noticed when taking bereaved relatives round Nortons (the founders in Sheffield) was that people like to touch it, because it’s trough-cast, each surface has a slightly different texture, and to accentuate the tactile effect, each is turned 90º to adjacent stellae.”

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