Week 3: Literature Review

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Walthamstow is well connected to the centre of London but far enough out to foster its own identity. This observation is crucial to the typographic environment. Walthamstow has four areas that can be considered commercial centres: the first, Walthamstow Village; and the High Street that links with St James Street and Wood Street, all of which formed due to new transport links. These streets have been of interest to design critics and have been subject to various regeneration and heritage preservation projects.

In 2017, journalist Hatherley noted that on the High Street was an “assemblage of Lithuanian and West African grocers, Bulgarian restaurants alongside eel and pie shops, a plethora of charity stores, a busy street market mostly full of tat with the odd bit of gold. It is an exhilarating, warm and convivial fragment of a world where borders are irrelevant and nationalism a joke” (Hatherley, 2017). Map 1 lays out a selection of multicultural business signs on the high street that patch one end to another.

Turning our attention to typography, the High Street shop fronts as varied as their fares. Hatherley reflects on this, saying that “many of the old signs were and are naff, some of them very enjoyably so … What they do instead is display to the pedestrian that they’re in a place where people from every continent live without discord. Today, that means a lot” (Hatherley, 2017). Residents of the area might disagree that there that people “live without discord”, usually on social media; however, what tensions there are, play out in a subtle way that allows the High Street to exist in its ever-changing state.

St James Street

On the west end of the High Street, near St James Street station, a council regeneration project in 2017 has led to ire from locals and design critics alike. The shop facades were redesigned using colours from a muted palette with identical uppercase san-serif names, irrespective of the nature of the business. In an area survey in 2014, before work taking place, a report from the council stated that “reflective materials and inappropriate lighting can detract from the historic character of the conservation area and give an inferior quality appearance to the area. There are many oversized, internally illuminated and inappropriate signs within the Conservation Area” (Waltham Forest Council, 2014). 

Given that the council marked the area for historical conservation, the signage is not in keeping with what was there before. The views in 2013 are brighter in colour and less uniform than in the early 1900s. Still, I suggest the older photographs give a false impression, partly due to the monochrome photo processing. It is only an opinion that the signage “can detract from the historic character” and “give an inferior quality appearance” (Waltham Forest Council, 2014). It creates the sense of othering of the community.

Journalist Owen Hatherley believes that “urban coherence is a good thing. But the remodelling of the shop signs of Walthamstow is an anally retentive mistake, driven by a total misunderstanding of what makes London interesting”. He goes on to say that “this particular approach to conservation is a ‘sanitised version of the urban streetscape, with its heritage paint shades and expensive bread shops’ which is ‘as historically suspect as any other era’s vision of the past’” (Hatherley, 2017; Holland, 2009).

Holland argues that “‘for all its assumed sensitivity, it is ultimately more about a certain kind of pervasive middle class aspiration than it is about conserving the past’” (ibid.). This view is echoed in critical design writing: such projects exemplify how harking back to the past results in the outcome being “robbed of its authenticity and historical context” (Keedy, 1998). Lupton speaks similarly scathingly of nostalgic design, describing it as “a falsification of history, not a return to it; it treats the past not as the roots of the present, but as a distant entity” (Lupton, 1992). With the muted colour palette and modern san-serif typeface, the project is a hybridisation of historical features and contemporary aesthetics that neatly fits the nostalgia category.

It is easy to criticise work done in good faith to improve an area; however, the criticism levelled at this project is vital to forming future projects, such as Stowe Framework, that are as sensitive to the present as to the past. Four years on, new businesses use their own branding, in sharp contrast to the regenerated business signs and making the regeneration project appear contrived. This public work to restore the building facades and the walkways have been well-received. It is only the redesign of the shop fronts that overstepped historical conservation into sanitisation.

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