Ana Juan’s poignant cover image for the New Yorker of the Eiffel Tower rising from a sea of blood with a red-leaded pencil at its apex aptly sums up the tragedy that hit Paris last week. The city was in shock and the world in confusion as cartoonists and journalists fell victim to a terrorist attack.
Juan’s potent illustration is a fitting tribute to the way visual design can sometimes respond where words fail. The same was true of the late Alan Fletcher’s postcards of New York, the Twin Towers burned out of the pictures by his own cigarette as he sat in a sidewalk cafe in that stricken city in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Visuals can transcend language and convey emotion in a way that we all understand.
But the New Yorker cover also says something else. It tells how buildings have come to sum up a city for us, signifying its identity. Hence it was equally appropriate that London should respond to the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other atrocities in Paris by projecting the French flag, the Tricolore, on to the iconic National Gallery and Tower Bridge and lacing blue, white and red lights through the Trafalgar Square fountains.
Buildings aren’t new in city identities. The New York skyline is a classic, popularised by Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan movie. This added authority to the omission of the Twin Towers in Fletcher’s doctored postcards. It is echoed worldwide from Seattle to Hong Kong and inspired Johannesburg-based Israeli designer Bradley Kirshenbaum to brand the Love Jozi range of T-shirts and artefacts with the Jo’burg skyline.
But as prominent new edifices emerge, so a city’s identity changes, reflecting social and economic shifts. London, for example, added the London Eye to its identity repertoire of largely ancient buildings at the turn of the millennium and now has architect Renzo Piano’s glass Shard at London Bridge as a new civic emblem.
And we are using buildings in new ways. The old notion of merely floodlighting the town hall and the church – buildings signifying power and authority – has been surpassed. We are increasingly lighting prominent buildings to celebrate, or in the case of last weekend, commiserate with significant events.
When experiential design group Imagination transformed London’s BT tower through lightshows for the 50th anniversary of VE day in 1995 it was considered a major coup in the design world. Now though we are more likely to expect to see lasers in the sky on significant occasions and for them to be even more adventurous, just as we expect magic from our public firework displays. Jason Bruges Studio created a ‘festival of lights’ from the Shard in the run up to last Christmas, for example, just as the resourceful Bompas & Parr had showered London’s new year’s revelers with multisensory ‘snow’, in a partnership with Vodafone, as 2014 dawned.
Light-driven experiential design is a growing art in urban environments and what better backdrop than a city’s buildings. It provides fleeting joy and inspiration for all and is gaining in ‘intelligence’. At a time when the UK’s income from design has increased 25 per cent year on year – the latest figures from the Department for Media, Culture and Sport put it at £3.1bn last year – we can expect this creative area to expand its contribution. It may be a tiny sector now, but with corporate businesses, retailers and the hospitality and entertainments worlds all looking for a slice of the action, it can only grow in importance and technical prowess.
Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor. You can follow her on Twitter @RelphKnight