Kenneth Frampton
Architectural Typography:
Willi Kunz at Columbia

Willi Kunz’s design work for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, New York, began in the fall of 1984. The posters are structured about a standard format having a common height of 24 inches and being either 12 or 18 inches in width. Kunz’s GSAPP posters have so far assumed two different modes of address: they either announce the fall and spring events for a particular academic year, or they are complimentary announcements the purpose of which is to advertise current and new courses initiated by the school.

Like the ‘credo’, 12 Typographical Interpretations, Kunz’s graphic work fort he GSAPP is predicated on two main precepts: first, upon the disposition of type and visual components in such a way as to simulate structural form or to serve as an analogue for architectonic concepts, and second, as the dynamic placement of the graphic information in itself.

The seasonal pairs of posters have served as a kind of proving-ground for Kunz’s typographical ideas, that is to say as vehicles in which he has had the freedom to explore certain hypothetical notions. Kunz has designed the last three years of events posters as pairs in which a certain metaphoric theme and structural order are common to both the fall and spring announcements. Thus the two lecture posters for 1984/85 were predicated about the image of an abstract stepped form, which serves to centralize the information of the poster. In this instance it could be claimed that the spring announcement was more unified with its vertical line of bold red numbers and solid black rules. This staccato rhythm served to link the aforementioned stepped form to the supplementary information arranged horizontally at the bottom of the poster. Naturally these posters have to carry a lot of conflicting information within a limited format and this problem was particularly severe in the spring of 1985 when the announcement had to combine the dates of film showings as well as the times of lectures and the schedule of the exhibition sequence.

This burden was much reduced in three basic Master of Science programme announcements that Kunz was asked to design in 1986: for architecture, historic preservation, and urban planning, respectively. Of these three the most successful was surely the poster for historic preservation. In this instance the stepped gestalt of the events poster was enlarged so as to create an overall ‘tectonic’ field of colour in which the graphic information was accommodated. The lower edge of this field was contoured in such a way as to echo an element in the photographic image, while the ‘dropped-out’ circle of colour alluded to a stud of stone within the same photograph. As in all of Kunz’s work the size, disposition, and scale of the typographic information was determined by regulating lines. In this case these invisible registers were derived in part from the linear structure of the photo and in part from the stepped motif. It is significant that possibly the least successful of this three-part sequence was the architecture poster, which dispensed entirely with the same stepped form. Here a diagonal line taken from the Judith Turner photograph effectively precluded the use of the stepped motif.

In his recent programme posters, Kunz has increased the width of the format by 6 inches and moved away from the predominantly vertical order of the lecture posters. By and large these wider posters depend directly on either a literal image or an abstract metaphor. This last appears in one of the earliest posters in the wider format. This is the announcement of the New York/Paris programme dedicated to providing a junior year of architecture and planning instruction in these two cities. Here Kunz chose to contrast the rectangular Manhattan grid to the radio concentric grid of Paris. By placing the former into a square and the latter into a circle, Kunz was able to represent not only the structural difference between the two fabrics, but also qualitative differences in the ‘tone’ of the two cities.

Thus the Manhattan square was printed in acid green and the Paris circle in dark cobalt. In the first instance the allusion appears to have been to the ‘green passport’; in the second it was surely to the deep blue, which is present in so much French publicity. The subtle interpenetration of these two forms wherein the green overlapped the blue and where the blue had a reciprocal rectangular void cut out of it, not only suggested that the two cities were to be compared but also that the course would take place in both New York and Paris. Subsequent New York/Paris posters by Kunz do not convey this reciprocity with comparable elegance and conviction.

In his most recent posters fort he lecture series ‘86/87 Kunz has returned to the ‘constructivist’ rubric of red on black, with the speakers’ names lined up against a thick, black, vertical calendar line, and the exhibitions indicated by horizontal red bars which for Fall ‘86 are formally ordered and for Spring ‘87 are vertically positioned according to their respective opening dates. These two posters exemplify the perennial task of the graphic designer of having to reconcile formal order and informational structure. Thus were the spring poster attains a higher level of formal resolution, the fall poster is more legible in terms of the relation of the information to the calendar line. It is doubtful whether this formal dissolution is really compensated for by having more consistent calendar coding. Having insisted on such consistency, I now have to admit that here surely is an instance in which the formal considerations ought to have taken priority.