17 July 2012
From The architects' blog
It all started with street signs. We have recently moved our office to a different part of Winchester, an old neighbourhood on the edge of the city centre, and I had started noticing all the old street signs. Most of them are simple, painted, cast-iron signs, white lettering on black.
And all of a sudden, for a day or two, street signs became a bit of an obsession. I walked all over the city looking at their different designs, the best being the few really old ones with slab-serif lettering. But of course the majority were modern signs, printed on heavy plastic and mounted on galvanised metal posts.
So it got me thinking about technology and progress. While there are things that are constantly being improved, like medicine or mobile phones, perhaps there are some things that are destined to get worse over time. And maybe street signs are just one of those things.
Then we had a drinks party in our office to celebrate the move, and I met one of the local councillors.
“Isn’t it amazing what a variety of street signs there are in Winchester?,” I said to him.
“I know,” he replied, “we should really do something about it.”
I laughed, but he then went on to tell me all about the programme of lamppost replacement that the county council has been planning for years and is just starting now. The idea is that the whole of Winchester — and eventually the whole of Hampshire — should have one design of lamppost only. So the next evening I walked home looking only at lampposts.
Okay, it’s true that there are a lot of different lampposts and not all of them are very well designed. But like the street signs the earlier they are in date, the nicer they are. And this isn’t anything about wanting to rewind the clock — I’m just talking purely about the elegance of design.
On the corner of one of the most historic streets in Winchester was a beautiful, old, cast-iron lamp standard with a moulded base and swan-neck top, stamped with Victorian lettering. And, ominously, there was an orange barrier around it and a sign saying: “Street lighting replacement programme”.
Well this last week has been pretty busy, and most of it spent in London. But today I was walking through the middle of town and came to have another look at that handsome lamppost. Perhaps you can imagine what had happened: it had gone, and in its place was what looked like a model of a Stealth bomber on the end of a long black pole.
I stood in shock. This is a city where the slightest change to a listed building will involve months of negotiation — as I have frequently experienced at the hands of conservation officers. And meanwhile a beautiful, old, cast-iron lamppost, perhaps the best example in the city, has now been lost forever. I wonder whether that really can be described as progress.