A letter from Venice

John Morgan

A letter from Venice
John Morgan

The Venetian stencil street signs or Nizioleti don’t prevent you getting lost in the labyrinth, but they do comfort you or allow you to get lost in the most elegant way. They speak to you not in an Italian but a Venetian dialect – ‘Calle’ rather than ‘Via’. Given their frequency, that they don’t irritate or disturb is a measure of their visual properties – they must be the most beautiful of city sign systems (closely followed by the v-incised Bath street names defined by light and shade alone). The stencil text is contained in a white plaster panel – Nizioleti means ‘white sheet or cover’ – roughly framed in black. The text is also painted black, but the black like so much in Venice has undertones of Prussian blue – the blue used in blueprints. Your eye follows the white rectangle through an apartment window to align with the Venetian ceiling ribbed with beams. The sheets which stack like sails when there’s lots to say, expand and contract to fit the content. There’s a hierarchy in size, the larger type of a sestiere (district) would sit above a smaller bridge label. The black blue text switches to brick red for key directional signs (and a more recent garish yellow reflective version). These point with a beautiful arrow, whose head is spliced from its own tail, leaving the bony silhouette of a vorticist fish.

These forms were irresistible to me when David Chipperfield, the Director of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, invited my studio to create a graphic identity for ‘Common Ground’. The body of work spanned across four publications, exhibition graphics, signage, posters, printed matter and more uniquely banners for bridges and wraps for Vaporettos. The theme Common Ground celebrated interconnected architectural culture and explored the things architects have in common, from the conditions of practice, to influences, collaborations and histories.

At first I saw no reason why the graphic identity should have its roots in Venice. I’d always thought of the Biennale as self-contained, but Venice is impossible to ignore, and the Nizioleti, like the Biennales, are an integral part of the city fabric. Our use of the Nizioleti was an attempt, like the sweat and tears of the contractors, to merge with this watery city. There are shared common associations with architects and stencils, part of the attraction being that stencils appear built and engineered (see Eric Kindel’s Fit to be Seen, Stencils for Architects, Engineers and Surveyors, in AA Files 61, designed by John Morgan studio). The zinc stencils (still) manufactured by Thévenon & Cie are now emblematic of Corbusier. More significantly, stencils have traditionally been used as a convenient and economical form of ‘public lettering’ as ‘everyday letters’ (literally ‘lettres a jour’, through which you see daylight when held up). More crucially on a practical level for our exhibition design, here is a letterform perfectly suited to signage and public notices of a temporary nature. When applied as a stencil there’s a painterly quality that can’t be matched by vinyl.

It seems likely the Nizioleti stencil system dates from Napoleon’s occupation, and we see similar typeforms produced by Jean Gabriel Bery in Paris from c.1781. There are the inevitable variations in letterform through time too. Our stencil was far from a faithful revival or reflection (that would be the ultimate narcissistic action in this most vain of cities). Through a process of reflection and refraction we produced a letterform that was similar but not the same. We picked and mixed those characters that suited us, focusing on those with the highest frequency in the title, selecting an ‘O’ with a perverse double cut, and an ‘R’ with a loose curled tail (clipped from the mane of St Mark’s lion).

I moved with my family and set up studio in San Polo for August. The stencil was both sprayed and paint-stamped using a vinyl mask throughout the Giardini central pavilion and the Arsenale. In the weeks leading to the Biennale and through the Vernissage, the Common Ground graphic material began to cover the waterfront, posters at Rialto (the ‘huge marble parenthesis of a bridge’ Brodsky), over the grand canal on the wooden Ponte dell’ Accademia, outside the gothic palazzo of the Biennale offices at Ca’ Giustinian (San Marco) and travelling to the Lido and back on a vaporetto. Like the sweat and tears of the exhibitors and contractors, the Common Ground identity began to merge with the city.