Archive: modernism

This is part 1 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Last weekend I took a trip to London for the weekend. I arrived on the afternoon of Friday 10 February, and left on the afternoon of Monday 13 February. London is the sort of place I could keep going to. I go about once every two years, and every time I go away feeling like I needed much more time.

Typically, whenever I go to London, it is normally a last-minute deal — something I’m squeezing in around something else. This time round, it was still similarly last-minute, but I took the time to schedule everything in advance. Unfortunately, I was too optimistic and would have needed at least twice as much time to do everything I wanted to.

Day 1 map:

London day one map

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

My first stop was in fact the last addition to my itinerary. But as I kept refining the schedule up until the moment I arrived in London, I ended up deciding to come here first. It was the most out-of-the-way place and I couldn’t check in to my hotel yet, so I thought I’d get this done first.

Being an observatory, it is reasonably high up. So you get some pretty cool views of the area, which I wasn’t expecting.

London panorama

THAT photo on the prime meridian

I stood on the prime meridian line, which is something I wanted to do as a child. I took that picture. I guess you have to.

The Meridian Courtyard itself is surprisingly small. But not to worry, because the main action is to be found in the time galleries. It’s a good place to visit if you’re a time geek or interested in astronomy.

It charts the development of timekeeping over the years. There are lots of early experimental clocks on display. At the other extreme, there are modern-day atomic clocks and GPSs. In between, there are displays about the BBC’s pips generator and the speaking clock.

The nearby astronomy centre, which is free to enter, was a bit of a let down in comparison. But I suppose you get what you pay for.

Cutty Sark

On my way back I decided to take a quick look at the Cutty Sark. But there is a lot of work going on there at the moment, so it’s almost impossible to get a good look at it. But the photo I took of it is reasonably good, considering.

All photos from Royal Observatory, Greenwich:

Tate Modern

The Friday night was the one evening of the weekend in which I didn’t have prior plans. Tate Modern is open until 10pm, and is within walking distance of my hotel. So it came together quite nicely.

I think it’s really great that a place like this is open so late and free. If I lived in London I would probably go quite a lot!

Modern art is controversial, but at least it is interesting. Of course some of it is toss, and there is no way you will like everything on display. But to expect to like everything surely misses the point. Good art should be challenging and thought-provoking, and inevitably that means hating some of the stuff along the way.

It’s the same with experimental music, which I love. If you liked it all, there wouldn’t be much point.

I much prefer to visit a gallery like Tate Modern than a gallery of traditional art containing portrait after portrait after portrait.

I was disappointed that the Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals are no longer on display. I was looking forward to seeing them, and it turns out they were removed from display in October.

Among my personal highlights was the display Architecture and Power, which explores modernist and brutalist architecture. It offered a lot of the social and political commentary that I found was lacking in the Brutalism book. Very thought-provoking.

I also enjoyed the Dark Humour display.

But my favourite individual piece was Fall by Bridget Riley. I have not been particularly struck by op-art before, and nor was I particularly keen on the other Bridget Riley paintings on display. But physically standing in front of Fall was a real experience. It is very eye-catching, almost literally, as the waves appear to pop and fizz when they are in fact clearly stationary.

I ended up buying a print of Fall in the shop, although when I got home I wondered where it would put it, because looking at it all the time would surely drive me mad. It is now hanging up behind the sofa.

The shop was brilliant, with loads of books about art and design. My wallet was partially destroyed here.

Example of a motorway road sign

I was pleased to see an article on the BBC News website about the brilliance of the design of the UK’s road signs.┬áMinimalist and clutter-free, British road signs are a design triumph.

I often look to transport-related design of all types for inspiration. The reason is because they have to work well. Lives might depend on it. As such, a lot of research goes into them.

In the case of road signs, they have to be clear enough to read when travelling at speed, from a distance. They need to be processed quickly. They must deliver an unambiguous message.

It is not easy. But the the design of road signs almost never changes, and hardly anyone ever complains about them. That is an indication that they have got the design right.

The BBC News article outlines some of the research that took place when the signs were originally designed in the 1960s. It reminded me of the research that took place in the USA more recently, in the development of the Clearview typeface for road signs there. If you are interested in design, those articles make for interesting reading.

It’s not just road signs I like to take inspiration from. If anything, railway design is better. Railway signs may not have to be read at speed, but they still have to convey complicated information with clarity. Often these signs will have to be read by visitors from other countries, making it essential that the signs can be understood by people who might not speak English as their first language.

Earlier this year I read this fantastic article about a book called British Rail Design. It looks brilliant. I would love to get my hands on it, though sadly it seems to be rare and expensive.

Both the road signs and the British Rail Alphabet were designed by Jock Kinneir. But surely the granddaddy of railway graphic design must be Harry Beck, whose work needs no introduction.

Harry Beck's London Underground map

Harry Beck designed his original map in his spare time and was paid just five guineas. The iconic British Rail logo was designed by a 21-year-old, Gerald Barney. These are the sorts of facts that make you look at yourself and wonder what you have achieved in life.