Modernism + Local
Being in Europe—or in the most immediate case—London, brings a raft of memories of previous visits. It began with disembarkment under a placid gray morning sky, being whisked away in a series of lorries to the LHR international terminus. Glancing around at the husk-eyed business travelers, Scandinavian tourists returning home, expats gleamed their Blackberries for instant reminders of what they’d missed in the last seven hours. I was swaddled in Gore-Tex, perched in an awkward way with a backpack full of kit and a hiking pack that claimed the rest of my belongings, my companion and mobile subset of home. Or house, rather—home being a more elusive concept, abstract and non-final.
From the window of the lorry I spied evidence of our profligate obsession with futurism, the modern international airport. What differed largely, standing out most at that point was the signage. The neurons were slowly adapting to the fact that between six hours of sleep in the last 48—three of those on a plane—it was in fact morning, and they’d soon have to deal with looking to right when crossing the street. The signage was Teutonic, wholly Swiss yet functionally British, using simple shapes to convey meaning in their babeled context.
Akzidenz Grotesk was everywhere. Was this a deliberate choice? Did the root designs predate 1950? Color mean graveness of meaning. Yellow for caution, red for stop and danger. The gray, rectilinear setting is punctuated by AIGA-approved glyphs, double-fat rounded red boxes, diagonal lines screaming caution. The neutrality of an airport’s inner workings visible from a passenger bus reminded me simultaneously of Köln, Beppu, and the underbelly of Disney World. Evidence of the British humanity that largely fed and oiled the beast was in the smaller signs: Engineering Surgery, NO PARKING, jet-fuel blackened elder signs probably rolled up from an earlier iteration of the airport. It was The Future, borne from the confluence of post-war UK smacking into the modernist movement, the Jet Age and more enlightened travelers tossing around a newly minted Europe.
There was no evidence of the previous day’s incident on the runway, except perhaps that we were being shuttled around in a bus instead of a plane nuzzling up to the actual terminal. Evidence came in the form of a newsprint sign, hand-lettered, barking about the seriousness of the questioning the pilot had undergone. At Paddington Station, it was a brief discontinuity between airport train and city bus, effecting commerce for the dual purpose of sustenance and acquisition of coins. Besides transport, the first thing I purchased in the UK was a pair of bananas, the second thing an imperial pint of Belgian beer.
On the bus I realized the durability of those images from my youth. How civil signage, brutalist architecture and sans-serif type laid the boundaries of what I’d later deem correct or beautiful.
Epiphanies are funny things, like a little child who sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder before squirreling away between the cloaks and legs of the crowd at a party. The memories that landed on the airport bus were of my mother, diesel and German supermarkets, Deutsche Bahn, trucks and Frankfurt. The time was 1983, living in pre-unified Germany as a child of six, with an Air Force captain, a nurse and my two-year-old sister. My parents were encouraging of my creative efforts, taking me to castles and cathedrals where I sketched gargoyles and arches, occasionally being posed for family “photo ops.” Even then, I hated being a tourist—or at least the visible impression of being one. I wanted to fade into the background and observe, fit in, absorb the local.
Soon I was again happily nesting in modern transport, propping up the wall of the double-decker bus with my belongings. The audacity and entitlement of the American expat who boarded the bus later contrasted with the beautiful mother of one, a Björk doppelgänger with her modern pram, swathed in inky black wool, the corners of her eyes slightly pickled, amused.