Art and Architecture are so often linked together that we tend to assume that they are closely related activities. Although this assumed reciprocity seems vastly overstated – especially in the increasingly technocratic and specialist realm of architecture in the 21st century – there have undoubtedly been periods of creative cross-fertilisation and genuine exchange. Obvious examples include the relationship of early modernists including Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos to the artistic avant garde of their time and the cross-disciplinary activities of the Independent Group in the 1950s.
Another example of such genuine exchange, albeit less documented, occurred in the late 1960s, predominantly on the west coast of America when a movement that came to be known as Supergraphics emerged as the result of a series of collaborations between graphic artists and architects. Today we think of supergraphics as any large-scale lettering applied to the exterior or interior of buildings, as wayfinding devices or for communicating information or for advertising. But at the time of its inception, Supergraphics had less to do with any of these things and was actually an attempt to push the boundaries of what was thought possible in the mediums of both graphic art and architecture.
Borne out of early postmodern ideas about architecture and coinciding with the Pop and Op Art movements of the time, Supergraphics sought to challenge the spatial limitations of architecture’s inherent physicality. Two-dimensional designs were applied to various surfaces in such a way as to be transformative, attempting to remove solidity, gravity and history, and to define space in a non-physical way. Way beyond mere decoration, the intent was to construct a visually immersive environment and its effect was supposed to be reality altering.
The first notable instance of this radical new approach appeared at Sea Ranch, a housing project by architect Charles Moore working with graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Large blocks and stripes of bold colours were applied to the interior spaces in geometric forms that were derived directly from the architecture itself. Structural elements such as staircases, dividing walls and doors became exaggerated and distorted, the two-dimensional shapes extending beyond the architectural plane forming sculptural elements of their own.
One of the most significant and perhaps successful artistic collaborations between an architect and a graphic designer was realized at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Jon Jerde, the architect, was already known for his use of highly coloured and graphic, iconic symbolism to create larger than life buildings and interiors such as the Horton Plaza in San Diego. His collaborator on the Olympics was Deborah Sussman, a graphic artist who had worked as part of the Eames’ multi-disciplinary practice for several years. It was her task to create a distinctive graphic identity for the Games which could be deployed at the various venues around the city.
Famously constrained by an almost non-existent budget, together they designed a series of spectacular temporary structures made from scaffolding poles, tents and cardboard tubes, all decorated in an exuberant palette of colours and patterns inspired by the surrounding and immigrant cultures that have influenced Los Angeles’ character. The hybridisation of architecture and graphic design in this instance was more than just a spectacular solution, its overall effect was powerful enough to set the aesthetic identity for the city by which it is still recognised today.
In both collaborative and artistic terms, the pursuit of Supergraphics was experimental in its nature and ambitious in its desire to generate something that genuinely extended the spatial effects of architecture. It allowed graphic designers to realise their ideas at a scale not restricted to paper and in three dimensions, and architect to be able to effect transformations not possible through solid construction alone. In the words of Deborah Sussman: “to create something bigger than the architecture”.
In his essay on the work of Charles Moore in the issue of Volume dedicated to the 1960s counter-culture, Jorge Otero-Pailos sought to directly link Moore’s use of Supergraphics with an interest in distortions of perception and mind-altering spatial effects. In an intriguing reversal of critical opinion on post modernism in general and Moore’s work in particular, he proposed a more radical agenda for supergraphics related to the periods interests in psychedelia and experiments in spatial perception.
Our own interest in supergraphics influenced two recent projects that were both, perhaps not un-coincidentally, also realised in Los Angeles. The first was situated in direct reference to perhaps the most iconic of all signs, the Hollywood sign on top of Mount Lee: 45 foot high letters that were erected originally to advertise real estate and are now preserved as a historic icon for the film industry and the city worldwide. Commissioned to produce an artwork for the site we responded to the sign’s iconic status by building several huge, white, three-dimensional letters and scattered them along the 3 mile trail up to the sign. These were accompanied by a series of viewfinders that suggested the letters had tumbled down the hill and that the sign was slowly falling apart.
By constructing three-dimensional versions of the sign’s letters that were larger than life at 8 foot high (yet only a quarter of their real size) we provided visitors with an opportunity to interact with the icon, to touch, hold and have their photo taken with it. The letters we built were not inhabitable, nor did they serve any specific function except the ‘super’ experience of being up close to them.
Some spectacular moments resulted from the transportation of the letters from the workshop: strapped into the back of a pick-up truck in Downtown LA and taken along the freeway to the base of the trail where they then had to be physically carried up the trail. When the event was over the letters were carried by down the hill to become rather spectacular impromptu seating for the after-party.
The letters even enjoy a second life now after the event, the foamboard used as formwork for concrete and transformed into sculptures that serve a more practical function as outdoor furniture in the garden of a house at the foot of the hill. Almost as if the letters found their final resting place after tumbling down the full extent of the trail, becoming petrified permanent versions of themselves - like a re-appropriated, supergraphic ruin.
Los Angeles is currently mourning the recent loss of Deborah Sussman who sadly passed away last month aged 83, so when we were approached to collaborate on an event with Los Angeles-based practice LA-Mas it seemed fitting to make a tribute to her work. Using a palette of colours derived from her designs for LACMA and references to the icons and other techniques she employed at the LA Olympics, we designed a series of large-scale numbers which were cut out and hand-painted in a number of unique decorative patterns to identify each of the venues taking part in the event. Strikingly distinct from the various architectural backdrops they stood against, and enlivening many an otherwise blank wall, the numbers each assumed a character of their own whilst providing an readily recognizable identity for the whole event.
Both these projects attempt to update the experiments of the Supergraphic movement, using scale disjunctions and contextual displacement within the perceptual field. Removed from their specific context, the objects slip ambiguously between graphic two-dimensionality and a more haptic and sculptural presence. They also express our simple and unabashed enjoyment of supersized graphic elements in the landscape.