Making the Windows of Leeds

Stephen Woowat

In September 2015 we were awarded a commission to lead the creation of an installation for Leeds train station.

Following the success of the British Art Show 8’s arrival in Leeds, an exciting wave of new cultural and visual arts projects were happening around the city – championed under the banner of ‘Unfold’. As part of this programme, a new commission, funded and supported by Leeds BID, looked to develop a new installation for the city’s train station.

The proposed site was the main concourse – a highly visible space which thousands of visitors and commuters pass through each day. There were two main objectives: create an iconic, visual welcome to the city and celebrate it’s creative and cultural community.

A city’s creative and cultural community is something which is always shifting and the sum of many different people – so it was crucial that the installation incorporated the idea of change. It need to be something that was not elitist or owned by any one person, but something open to everyone.

Rather than continually rethinking the space entirely each time – we felt it needed an element of permanence to it. Our proposal was to develop a typographic sculpture of the word Leeds – a simple, bold statement that you had arrived at the city. Each letterform however, would also function as canvas that could change and be reinterpreted by different artists and designers over time. This approach would allow the necessary adaptability, while still creating a single iconic visual thread.

Numerous approaches to typography and structure were considered. Early concepts played with the letters being more scattered and abstracted (a bit Channel 4 ident-like) so that you could appreciate the complete word when stood at a set vantage point. Although ideas like this sounded quite attractive on the surface, we felt they would struggle in reality. The station’s concourse isn’t huge and is already home to departure screens, adshells, rows of benches and everything else. It’s a visually noisy environment and it would be hard for the letters to create impact when pulled apart on their own. There were practical considerations too: dropping a bunch of big letters around an already busy space created obstacles to get around. The last thing it wanted it to be was a nuisance or in the way.

We agreed the letters needed to be grouped. Fortunately, works were already underway in the station to remove long-standing retail units at the main entrance – part of a programme to create a more open space and flood more light into the building. The location was ideal, but provided an interesting challenge: we needed to create something that would have visual impact, but not undo the efforts made to free the space up in the first place.

With this in mind, the letters were clustered, but staggered and rotated to create a less defined barrier. It felt less rigid and created more natural pockets of space between them. We wanted the area to feel inviting and allow people to walk freely through and around. The letters were also broadly orientated to read Leeds as you arrived from the platforms – a welcome to the city – rather than facing the outside, which symbolically felt more like a sign for the station itself. We carefully considered the scattering so that the they would create lots different interactions when viewed from different angles – so they still felt visually interesting whatever your vantage point.

The idea of transparency carried through into the letterforms themselves. Rather than be solid shapes, filled and opaque, the inner areas would use clear, polycarbonate sheets to display commissions. The overall semi-transparent effect would also allow light to travel freely throughout the space, but still create a nice visual disruption.

In may ways, the letters were secondary – the commissions inside them were the hero. We worked to maximise the area inside so that they would provide the biggest canvas as possible. We developed a ‘bloated’ treatment that cleaned out the natural cuts in the E’s and S and the counter of the D. We played around until we found the right level of abstraction between nice, big usable spaces, but still could be understood as letterforms.

Designing out details like the counters had structural advantages too. Had they been kept in, we’d of needed to find a way to suspend them in the middle of the polycarbonate sheets. This would of made engineering the letters more complicated. We risked creating unwanted supports and the appearance of a more stencilled typeface, which would have broken-up the canvases too much.

It was important that the letterforms still felt interesting in their own right. We wanted something that people would want to touch and interact with. At about two metres high they felt nicely ‘human scale’ while still being big enough to create impact. The heavy rounding and simplified geometries also helped lend an interesting abstract and sculptural quality. Frame edges were refined to be thick enough to give structural support, but slender enough not to overpower. Depth was also crucial – too slim and the letters would lack physical presence, too deep and they would obscure the insides too much when viewed from an angle.

Building a long-term installation for a public space required the structures to be very durable. By demanding the letters had no visible bracing, it required all the strength to be held in the outer frames. They needed to support themselves, but also be ready for people to potentially sit on them (the L) or generally knock into them. What material would be the toughest? What had the right tactile quality? What felt robust and simple?  What would be easy to clean and maintain?

To help translate our ideas into real objects we commissioned the team at XKX Projects.

A plan was developed to fabricate the letters from steel, using a series of parallel bracing rods that were shaped to run around a frame. These would then be welded together along with rolled steel sheets to form the outer edges. Small lugs then provided a simple fastening mechanism for the polycarbonate sheets inside.

Once the jigsaw of metal was put together, everything was heavily worked into, welding and blending the edges to create a seamless form with no visible joins. This was a meticulous process, done by hand. Although they looked quite beautiful in this raw state, there wasn’t long to appreciate them – their final treatment was powder coating. We’ll admit it, this was a finish we understood from an end result, but not really from a process point of view. Essentially, giant crocodile clips gripped the metal to magnetise it, and then a special paint was sprayed (also magnetised) so that it attracted and clinged, to create a really smooth and flat finish.

Alongside the design and fabrication of the letters – we were also working on the first series of artwork commissions that would sit inside them. For the initial reveal it was really important that the installation demonstrated the idea of inclusivity and a wider community. Each letter needed it’s own idea and twist on the format, as well as being clearly stylistically different.

Everyone needed bring their own approach to their letter, but we still needed a brief to ensure they all had a strong purpose and clear direction. We agreed a single brief that everyone could have their own take on: Celebrate Leeds. This was a natural extension to the original brief – so why overcomplicate it? It felt right to go more open, rather than start too narrow.

All of the contributors regularly met as a creative collective so that everyone could see how each design was progressing. It was important to consider them as a set, so we could guide letters in individual directions before they developed too far. Some letters were swapped early on if it was felt a particular design would benefit from a different shape.

You can read more on the ideas behind each piece on the Windows of Leeds site.

Each design would be printed onto clear vinyl film and then applied to the polycarbonate sheets. We did a lot of print testing to understand how this process could be used most interestingly and effectively. The application of white ink proved the crucial factor, as this would turn areas opaque. This allowed a very fine control over transparency and enabled everyone to build it into their ideas from the outset.

There was also a functional necessity to adding a white underpin. We found that that when backlit in daylight, coloured inks used just on their own would glow and create a fantastic stained glass window-like appearance. However, at night, or when there was lots of visual interference occurring behind the letter, the designs would simply disappear completely. Underpinning with white had the opposite effect – when backlit in bright daylight, the designs would flatten and feel slightly silhouetted  – but under interior lighting at night, the designs would be highly visible.

To apply white everywhere would have made the designs more resilient to every situation, but ultimately defeated the interesting transparent nature of the piece. In the end, a combination of the two were used throughout, specific to how each design worked. It also created a nice visual effect, allowing letters to appear slightly differently and reveal new details, depending on what time of day you saw them.

Collaboration has been critical to realising this project. It has required the bringing together of widely different skills and disciplines to help make it happen. We hope the end result becomes something that people will enjoy, interact with, and importantly, look forward to seeing how it changes next.

Thanks to everyone who helped bring this project to life:

Commissioned by Leeds BID, via Leeds City Council’s Unfold programme, working alongside Network Rail.

Fabrication and installation: XKX Projects.

Contributing artist commissions: L – Something More, E – Kristyna Baczynski, E – Alphabet, D – Hungry Sandwich Club, S – Idiot’s Pasture.

Print: Quarmby Colour

Install and press photography: David Lindsay