literally pictorial

A visible code, an invisible text – graphics on glass for the harbour terminal building in Bregenz

When you look at it more closely, you realize the graphic design on the glass facade in the Bregenz harbor terminal is encrypted lettering. On the basis of a competition the planning consortium Bregenzer Hafenterminal was awarded the contract to design the new harbor building that formed part of the plans to revitalize the entire harbor facilities. The architecture of the harbor building in the first design was based on a severe, cube-like basic form. As the result of intervention by lay persons, notorious letter writers to the local press, and politically motivated beneficiaries, the design was rejected by a majority. A new planning process involving local citizens ultimately resulted in a solution that was the opposite in formal terms: the building was now lower, with a curved shape and a wavy roof, and the walls were not solid but open and transparent. However, the designer had not reckoned with the new Austrian standards for glass manifestation and impact protection in accessible glass elements, which had just come into force. As this was a much frequented public building and parts of the total of 80 full-height glass elements can be opened to serve as an entrance, these regulations were all the more strictly applied. They required that the transparency be interrupted every 5 × 5 centimeters, with a high light-dark contrast and around 50 per cent coverage of the glass surface from a height of 0.9 to 1.35 meters. Our task was to apply this kind of manifestation to the glass facade without impairing the architectural design or the transparency of the building envelope.

A certain respect had to be paid towards the restrictive requirements of the Austrian Standard. Ultimately, however, this corset of standards provided an impulse for the design solution. Around this time I was reading the book “My Father’s Suitcase” by Orhan Pamuk where I encountered the following remarkable sentence: “When I am lettering, I believe I am a picture. When I am a picture, I believe I am lettering.” I have been dealing with the purely formal side of letters and numbers for many years. From the moment they become purely information media for us we can no longer see their formal quality. We discover the beauty of characters only in those letters that we can read with difficulty or not at all. For instance the word ΟΔΟΣ in Greek capitals seems like an artistically designed logo. But all it means is “Odos” – a way or path – and is found on millions of street signs in Greece.

Therefore I thought about a texture, but nothing legible, a picture, but nothing painted. While in the middle of the design phase, one Saturday I was paid a visit by a former intern, Sebastian Rauch. We discussed the binary code. Black and white were a pair, similar to 0 and 1. I saw a chance to bring this system of signs, which is hidden from most people apart from a few specialists, into the light, in accordance with Pamuk’s thoughts: apparently as a picture, but in fact as a text. At the same time this opened up a flexible program for the formal graphic design. All we had to do was to determine the contents, the form of the symbols and the layout. The contents were provided by journalist Otto Kapfinger in the form of a specially written text about the theme of glass and transparency, with the exact number of characters needed, 2206. Through the graphical implementation the text became illegible and was thus practically an indecipherable “dummy text”.

Lettering developed over thousands of years from what were originally graphical symbols to alphabets to digital communication, which is based on just two signals. For the form of the basic elements I went back to the early days of the alphabet. The use of alphabets as a system of written communication began on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in a city called Ugarit – already in the 14th century before the Common Era. In 2005 in Syria, which at the time was such a friendly and hospitable place, I discovered in the National Museum in Damascus the supposedly earliest find in the history of the alphabet – a finger-sized piece of clay with 30 impressed, cuneiform symbols, running from left to right. Recalling this amazing history of lettering, in place of the numbers 0 and 1 I defined two wedge shapes, one black and one white. The concept was to make a visual reference to the cuneiform alphabet, to give the binary code a visible form while, at the same time, conveying the rhythmical structure and order inherent to the text. Ultimately, what someone sees remains open: it could be a swarm of seagulls against the light, a regatta on choppy waves, or simply an ornament and a pattern, apparently varied at random.

The playful aspect of the appearance was strengthened by applying the symbols in the same way that an ox pulls a plow through a field to make furrows – what is known as a boustrophedon (literally “ox-turning”). An inscription in Gortys on Crete that is about 2500 years old provided me with the inspiration. The legal codex was written in 2.5 centimeter-high capitals in a Doric dialect, the lines run alternately from left to right and right to left. Not just the order of the letters in the words but also the letters themselves were adapted to the direction in which they are read and therefore every second line is back-to-front. The justified columns of the graphics on glass are made in exactly the same way. Writing the text as a boustrophedon makes it difficult to decipher, even for computer scientists. This was not intentional but was the result of a formal decision that gives the overall graphic appearance more movement. For the binary text a combination of eight 0/1 elements is needed per character, including spaces. To provide the necessary coverage of the glass surface, we placed the five-centimeter-high “letters” in justified layout, without any distance between characters and lines. This produced abstract columns, each with eight lines, in an average width of 1.60 meters with a “hard” return, continued across 80 glass panels. This completes the circle, so to speak. Modern information techniques concealed in the depths of computer circuits are presented using formal means borrowed from ancient writing cultures.

Reinhard Gassner