Studio Weave: Signage in Hackney
Last month we heard about an architecture studio working with Hackney Council to rework the signage and colour scheme within the London borough’s housing estates. A particularly personal subject matter to It’s Nice That, as our studio — along with many other notable creative agencies — is situated within Hackney. With the rapid gentrification of London’s
East End, particularly over the past decade, this project raises a multitude of social issues surrounding Hackney’s changing landscape. The council and Studio Weave confront these issues with the projects entitled Colour in Hackney and Signage in Hackney, which explore the best ways to support the long-standing communities of Hackney estates while simultaneously encouraging the economic growth that is benefiting the borough in so many other ways.
Architecture practice Studio Weave has worked tirelessly to create a highly original and coordinated approach to this task. The founder, Je Ahn, has built a dynamic studio that specialises in community-based architecture, situated next to Hackney’s London Fields. Within the airy, open-plan studio, Je discusses the intricacies of this project with It’s Nice That. He relays the thoughtful design process which is still being implemented across the borough and which will in turn, inform the feeling of the borough for years to come.
Starting in 2016, the studio developed a highly original categorisation system that allows individual buildings to follow a flow chart that documents each building’s architectural minutiae in order to choose a suitable colour scheme. Uniquely, the project values the community’s opinions as the residents have the opportunity to add individual quirks to each estate according to its personality, giving them a degree of creative autonomy. As a result of the laborious efforts in creating this new categorisation system, Studio Weave was then invited to redevelop the signage surrounding Hackney’s housing estates, using a similar cataloguing system to rejuvenate the outdated plastic wayfinding.
In conversation with Je, he begins by saying: “I’m a Hackney resident and I live in an estate, so my freehold landlord is the council and I am involved in the conversation surrounding the revitalisation of the area.” The project began when the council realised the increasing value of the 320 housing estates in the borough and in an area where property values have skyrocketed, the council estates in Hackney have become strategic assets.
Due to such economic boosts in Hackney — arguably both beneficial and detrimental to the indigenous communities — the council decided to put around £8.5 million behind the rejuvenation of the estates over several years. Due to the architectural diversity of the estates, choosing the colours to run cohesively throughout the housing estates proved a challenging task for the studio. To satisfy the subjective tastes of the several hundreds of people that call these estates home meant that “there was a real danger of ending up with a very general colour scheme consisting of white, black and Hackney green”, says Je.
Brutalist social housing of the 1950s and ‘60s is an example of this over-simplified housing design for the masses. Brutalism’s homogeneity strips back all the individualistic character of a home as an attempt to befit the variety of diverse communities that live in housing associations. By comparison, Je and his team acknowledge and appreciate the assorted mix of Hackney residents and assert the multiculturalism in the redesign. “Hackney being Hackney, we should be more diverse and incorporate different colours as well as examine what it actually means to have colour in these places.”
Coloured paint is a means of protecting a building by weather-proofing the facade and, most importantly, it’s reversible. “Paint is not permanent damage,” as Je puts it. His studio’s methodology creates a system which is “almost like choosing your own adventure story”. The objective is to “create a narrative where people can actually have discussions about their building without even talking about the colour”. Studio Weave devised a system of categorisation that follows the form of a flow chart in order to determine which colours appropriately suit each estate. This master map begins with an on-site checklist that determines all the building’s properties including its elevations, balconies, staircases, streetscape views, external perspectives and so on — providing a case for some unique design opportunities around the architectural landscape.
Once the checklist and flow chart are completed, each building comes out with a designated code that denotes a palette of complimentary colours to be used on the building. Studio Weave demonstrates the colour palette through a triangular system consisting of highlight colours at the tip of the triangle leading down to background colours at the base. Highlight colours are bright and are only used in limited places “like the colour on the inside of a sleeve of a suit” explains Je. “Highlight colours are not in your face” but add an uplifting brightness, as seen in the lemon yellow window panes of some estates. Background colours are “more muted, like white and toned-down pastel colours that define the character of the building” seen on larger surface areas that provide a comfortable basis to the building’s architectural narrative.
The master map examines every architectural element of the estates, questioning whether “the building is stand-alone or part of a complex,” says Je. “Then it goes through the age of the building, its materials, the formation of the building and so on until you come out with a code of what group of architectural features this building belongs to.” Each estate will go through this same route of logic that is part of an entirely original thought formulated by Studio Weave. “We created this whole guidebook as part of the impetus of research,” explains Je. The master map explores “what colour actually means. What is designing colour trying to achieve?” On top of these mammoth questions, the architects also inquire: “How can we bring the residents into the painting process and the looking-after of the estates? How can we involve the community in the redesign of their homes?”
Je’s methodical system is meticulously recorded in hundreds of pages that have been presented to Hackney council. These documents specify how to inspect the estates, starting with establishing its basic appearance followed by the adding of individualities and then, inviting local residents to participate in the re-painting. One of the key objectives with Colours in Hackney lies in making this categorisation system accessible to everyone as public documents. Furthermore, with the mind-boggling number of estates in Hackney, the system has to be readable and convenient for each estate. It factors in room for any special design features that fall outside general landmarks such as murals and basketball courts. Despite the thoroughness of the guide, Je asserts that “this guide doesn’t necessarily become the rule”. Whenever it comes down to the end category the studio wants the residents to be able to choose certain design opportunities within the building. Essentially, the design decisions “factor in the existing community groups as it is worth noticing”.
The architecture practice frequently integrates participatory community design into their projects. The Studio Weave founder explains: “I personally dislike optioneering — asking people, ‘Do you prefer this? Do you prefer that?’ It’s such a visually quick and lazy way of deciding the future of your home. That’s why I created a system that encourages people to have a conversation that isn’t just about what you see.” Je’s design ethos is devoted to transparency with the estate’s residents, right from the beginning. Starting the dialogue early, he aims to discuss the factual aspects of the project to the inhabitants, offering the chance to “learn about the history of the building, what architectural category it might fall into. And if they agree on these facts then they will understand the choice of 50 colours that make up the colour scheme. If they still don’t like it, then they still have the freedom to change it.” Fundamentally, the project communicates and respects the community’s authorship of the estates despite the council’s legal ownership.
The level of detail within the document’s design is immense. From the in-house CAD drawings of all the differing styles of housing to the analysis of colour theory, Studio Weave’s thought process is also an examination into the communal value of housing associations. Although the altruistic community-centred objective was not part of the commission, the studio felt that it should be a part of the guide. Constantly asking, “How can we meaningfully engage with the community and what opportunities can we offer them?” Je and his team explore the possibilities of group painting days as well as the chance for the residents to choose the colour of their own door. Unlike graphic designers, architects are limited by their colour options due to the chemicals that go into the paint. Pantone spot colours aren’t available in weather-proof paints and depending on the paint, the colour spectrum can shift. With the pilot tests occurring this year, Colours in Hackney will continue until 2025 alongside an updated general maintenance of the buildings.
While this project was underway, Studio Weave also created similar documents that follow the same logic around the signage of the estates. With the redesign of the signage, the architects set about creating a set of rules to replace the fading and discoloured plastic plaques. The rules work hand in hand with the colour code; once the categorisation of the building is established, there are guidelines in place that denote an appropriate style guide of the new signage that can be put in place.
Studio Weave collaborates with the graphic design studio Polimekanos, who contribute their typographic knowledge to the project. The architects create a system which graphically shows where the general location of the signs should go. The current signage of Hackney’s housing estates has been “completely incoherent for the past 40 years”, says Je, offering no sense of individual personality. The discoloured, plastic signs will be replaced with bespoke plaques that incorporate the newly appointed colour schemes around each border.
Similar to Colours in Hackney, the redesign of the signage follows a master map to determine what kind of signage is needed and where it will go. The process follows a set of rules, the first being “If it’s original signage, do not get rid of it, do not repaint it.” The studio works out a formula for how many signs are needed depending on the size of the complex. “If the building only has four faces, only two signs are needed. If the building has between four to eight faces, then only up to three signs are needed as we recognised that a sign is always visible from any given viewpoint with this formula.”
Critically, their system produces a clear, rational and cohesive way of re-colouring and re-signing the Borough of Hackney. The council is still in the process of executing the colour and signage projects as the pilot projects have only just launched. These pilots supply “a working example of how one would use the guideline” to implement an appropriate aesthetic uniformly, which can then be applied on a larger scale across Hackney’s estates.
Ultimately, Colours in Hackney and the Signage in Hackney project are socially significant projects that confront the increasing socioeconomic divide in Hackney, not to mention London’s overall problem with social inequality. Projects like these, delivered by community-centred studios like Studio Weave, consider not only good design but also who the design is actually benefiting and what effect it has on those who encounter it daily. These issues are often thought about, although it is rare to see a project as thoughtful and pragmatic as the work demonstrated by Je and his team.