A Not-Entirely Brief Guide to Supergraphics

A guide to Tokyo’s text-based public works

In Features Photo Reports by Nick West 2014-11-17

Stephen Powers, 'Now is forever' (2014). Street view, Harajuku.

As it’s understood today, a brief guide to Supergraphics is simply big graphics in an architectural setting. A not-quite-so brief guide would cite design critic C. Ray Smith (1929-1988) as the author who first coined the term in the 1960s as reaction to an aesthetic expounded by a previous group of architects known as Supermannerists. A not-really-very brief guide would define it as a term rooted in architectural theory that emphasised the use of graphic form and colour as a spacial, rather than decorative, experiment. And a not-entirely brief and quite possibly Tokyo-centric guide would start by noting the historic significance of Minoru Takeyama’s iconic buildings Ichibankan (1969) and Nibankan (1970) in Shinjuku, before sharing some recent examples of how Supergraphics are understood today; as is the case here.

Using one of the most ”super” of prefixes, the influential graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon surmises her arrival at Supergraphics during its original inception as:

In this superworld, with its supercharged, super-intense and superwoman exuberance, I combined the super-sized enthusiasm of California Abstract Expressionism with hard-edge Swiss graphics, and ended up with, however superfluous and superficial, supergraphics.[1]

During the 1960s and 1970s, what characterised Supergraphics were the use of stripes and arrows; of zigzags and diagonals; of patterns that bent around corners; of blazing palettes; of striking contrasts; of typography that could barely be contained to the scale of building; and stressing the surface of a building as an independent canvas to the structure with the use of large, painted graphics.

What Supergraphics mean today has changed, along with how large graphics have been applied to the built environment. Sometimes they’re referred to as Environmental Graphics. For any commuters who’ve found themselves following a bright band of colour on the floor of a large train station to find their connecting platform, Environmental Graphics is a very practical application of Supergraphics.

Also important to note is that since Supergraphics have moved away from architectural theory, other disciplines – installation art, public art and street art to name a few – have increasingly incorporated the built environment into their works. That artworks from these disciplines could now fall into the broader category of Supergraphics, as it’s understood today, is done so unconsciously. The photos that follow feature works made by pop artists and illustrators, as well as architects and graphic designers.

Technological advances also influence how we and our devices read our environment. Although the following photos mainly include static examples, the animated graphics found on outdoor screens could also be seen as an extension of how Supergraphics can rewrite the surface of buildings.

Lastly, the history-changing events of March 2011 have informed the subject of many recent works. Used to chilling effect for the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya last year was a response by architect Katsuhiro Miyamoto. Transposing a life-size blueprint of the Fukushima power plant onto several museum floors in tape, Miyamoto’s vast installation described the physical site and metaphorical presence that foreshadowed the main exhibition, Awakening – Where are we standing?(2013)

Back in Tokyo, there’s no shortage of graphics to be found on the signs, billboards and logos that crown the city’s buildings. One of the appealing qualities of Supergraphics is the ease with which it’s transposed from the page onto the built environment. If it can be written or drawn; it can be Supergraphic.

Stephen Powers, 'Now is forever' (2014). Street view, Harajuku.

Pink and white stenciled clouds form a patchy, fleeting background to the American artist Stephen Powers’ bold statement on a private wall in Harajuku, an area noted for its followers of fashion. Asserting itself in triplicate and at three metres tall is the statement: ‘Now is forever’.

Made by the artist formally known as street artist ESPO (Exterior Surface Painting Outreach) his work in Harajuku marks a commitment and subscribes to a nowness not dissimilar to the fashion stores that surround it. Commissioned in conjunction with a local bookstore in April 2014, it has since become a popular addition to the neighbourhood.

Masaaki Hiromura, 'Marui Shokuyukan' (2004). Corridor view, B1.

Hidden in the basement of a department store in Kitasenju is a food hall filled with fresh produce, gourmet delicacies, and graphics. Lining the walls of the areas between shopping spaces – in the lift lobbies, near the stairwells and along the corridors – are Masaaki Hiromura’s designs. Furnishing spaces with a shorthand that translates food and cooking terms into English, he’s combined ideograms with illustrations to provide shoppers with a light-hearted, bilingual vocabulary. Seeing these designs in this context is also a reminder of how receptive we are when we’re searching the aisles. First time consumers, in particular, are acutely attentive readers. In these surroundings, Hiromura’s designs make a reader of every customer.

Terada Design Architects, N Building (2009). Street view, Tachikawa.

The face of this five storey building in Tachikawa is best described as an interactive architectural project.
Designed by Terada Design Architects, they covered its surface with a graphic pattern made to incorporate mobile phone technology.

It looks like a QR Code. If you’re assuming the entire building front to be a giant, scan-able hyperlink that takes you directly to N Building’s website, you’d be right. But when N Building first opened, it also did more than that. The code itself enabled passersby to use their phones to browse shop information, make reservations and download coupons. In consultation with Nao Tokui and Alexander Reeder from the design collective Qosmo, when N Building opened, you could also read the live Twitter feeds of those tweeting inside the building. In this sense, N Building’s Supergraphics were an example of augmented reality – a physical environment whose elements were supplemented by computer-generated input. Qosmo had super-imposed a virtual layer upon the surface of N Building. See the video for a demonstration.

Felice Varini, 'Senaka Awase no Maru' (1994). Street view, Tachikawa.

Felice Varini, 'Senaka Awase no Maru' (1994). Street view, Tachikawa.

Taking advantage of a specific viewpoint, the Swiss artist Felice Varini used a projector to map and to paint a floating circle as part of Tachikawa’s public art programme Faret Tachikawa. Curated by Fram Kitagawa in 1994, it’s part of a wider exhibition of artworks, but is perhaps the only work that asks that you align yourself, just so, in order to see it. Positioned on one side of a zebra crossing, it’s characteristic of his practice to add geometric forms to architectural and urban spaces for viewers to participate and complete. Seen from another viewpoint, the individual fragments become just a wobbly collection of partial circles beneath a pedestrian walkway.

Kenta Kaido, '#BCTION' (2014). Installation view, Kojimachi.

An art event that took place in Tokyo this autumn, resembling an intervention more than it did a conventional exhibition, had independent curator Koutarou Ouyama take a DIY approach to the organisation of #BCTION. Taking place on nine floors of an office building due for demolition, seventy artists took to the walls to create murals and installations. One of whom was artist and illustrator Kenta Kaido, who painted a large hashtag character holding a spray can. Electricity snakes its way though the work to trigger other switches, while paint puffs or thought clouds drift and rest on the bookshelves in the imaginary room. Decidedly graphic, this black and white artwork also reflects the cause and effect ethos intended by the overall event: ACTION x ACTION = BCTION2.[2]

Takashi Murakami, Hello Mr. DOB (1997). Installation view, Kamiooka.

A few minutes from the railway lines at Kamiooka Station is a shopping centre called Yumeooka. Belonging to a larger public art initiative in the surrounding area that goes by the same pun, a combination of the area’s name with the Japanese word dream (“yume”), the Yumeooka Art Project is Murakami’s manga-like character Mr. DOB. Greeting shoppers with a grin on an acid yellow background in a lift lobby, the space is emblazoned with an icon in what would have otherwise been an ordinary connecting space in a shopping mall.

Curated by Fumio Nanjo, it opened to the public in 1997 and is about five metres wide. Seen from the side, Mr. DOB is presented on a panel raised slightly from the wall in low relief. Murakami is best known for producing ‘Superflat’ artworks that celebrate the “shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer culture” [3]; so its inclusion in this context is perhaps well suited. Graphically, Mr. DOB’s silhouette also bears some resemblance to Disney’s famous mouse, only one whom may suggest a certain cynicism.

Klein Dytham Architecture, T-Site, Tsutaya Books, Daikanyama (2012). Detail view.

Sometimes the fabric that encases a building can be formed of surprisingly subtle graphics. As broad as these low-rise buildings are, it’s entirely possible to visit T-Site in Daikanyama without noticing that the chalk white latticework is comprised of a repeated upper case letter, ’T’. Stylishly understated, this was designed by Klein Dytham Architecture in 2012 following the theme of ‘a library in the woods’. Their minimal design is knitted around all three structures, tidily winding its way around the corners and across the adjoining walkways too.

Tamaki Architectural Atelier, Fukagawa Fudō Temple (2010-2). General view.

A short walk from Monzen-Nakachō station is the magnificent Fukagawa Fudō Temple. For any skeptics beginning to regard large graphics in the built environment as primarily an extension of branding, Jun Tamaki’s temple facade will come as a welcome and original antidote. Connected to, and part of a Buddhist temple originally built in the early eighteenth century, the Kyoto-based architects helped preserve this historic, cultural property by extending the site’s footprint with a new hall for worship.

Surrounding the new hall are the sutra panels. A facade of black and gold Sanskrit letterforms inscribe the structure in an elaborate, bird’s nest of typography. Breaking with traditional temple architecture and materials, Tamaki’s designs give an eternal message a contemporary context. Cast in aluminium, the black type has been anodised, while the gold letters have had gold leaf applied to them. Presented on white backing, the pale background seems to blend with the sky the higher the letters get. Consisting of the twenty-four Sanskrit characters that belong to and tell the Acala mantra – one that’s chanted inside the hall – the result is a mantra wrapped in a mantra.

[1] Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, http://www.uniteditions.com/blog/1-supergraphics/
[2] Koutarou Ouyama (translated by Andrew Kane) http://bction.com/?page_id=54
[3] Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, artnet.com

Nick West

Nick West. Originally from Brighton in the UK, Nick West first visited Japan to curate a solo show in Kyushu. Captivated by Japan’s bewildering calligraphy, its art history and the Mars-like surface of Mount Aso, he left London’s galleries for Tokyo in 2010. He currently teaches fine art and English in Shibuya, but spends his weekends stumbling across public art, loitering in galleries and scribbling notes whilst he researches a showcase of contemporary Japanese art at www.gensojapan.org. His blood group is A positive, so his personality traits include being earnest, creative, sensible, reserved, patient and responsible: most of which he denies. » See other writings

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