By the Numbers
Futago designs interpretive sculptures to mark an historic waterfront trail.
If you zoom in on a map of Tasmania, the island state 240 kilometers south of Australia, and find its capital city of Hobart, you can just about make out the blunt promontory south of town.
Named after the battery of guns established there in 1818 to defend the coast, Battery Point shelters Hobart’s deep-water port to the north and looks south toward Storm Bay and beyond, to the route popular with Antarctic expeditions.
Battery Point is one of Tasmania’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods, its elegant Georgian homes belying the town’s origins as a penal colony. Its rich history, natural beauty, and arts and food scene have made it a popular tourist destination. To encourage visitors to explore its storied waterfront, Hobart City Council created a walking trail along the foreshore and invited design firms to submit ideas for interpreting its history through public art or interpretation. They chose hometown design firm Futago, who collaborated with sculptor Judith Abell and writer Chris Viney to take on the project.
“Visitors to Hobart are often looking for a local experience and the sculpture trail offers the opportunity to do something outdoors which is free, educational, and active,” says Jane Castle, Cultural Programs Coordinator for the council. “The project also provided an opportunity to show the potential fusion between art and interpretation.”
Counting on it
The Futago team embarked on its commission with an extensive research phase that included a walk of the 1.9-km-long trail with a City Council historian who pointed out many elements and details the team wouldn’t have uncovered in documents.
“We wanted to thread all of these sites and disparate stories together in a way that was completely unique,” says Judith Abell, Project Manager. “We wanted every site we selected and every material we used to underscore the story we were telling.”
As the research phase unfolded, the team noticed that many of the stories they gathered about Battery Point hinged on numbers: dates, times, or units of measure that could be used as portals into the past.
So Futago’s “sculpture by numbers” concept was born. Each of nine sculptures along the trail is a three-dimensional number that explores one or two linked interpretive stories related to the location. Brief and evocative interpretive text accompanies each sculpture, either embedded within the piece or located as a stand-alone sign nearby.
For example, 1833 tells the story of the New Wharf and its row of sandstone warehouses, which now form the backdrop to Salamanca Place, a popular gathering spot. The sculpture overlooks the historic warehouses, which today house galleries, boutiques, and bistros. 1833 is the year the first warehouse was completed. The sculpture structure is a steel cage filled with stacked sandstone fragments, referencing the material used for construction of the warehouses.
Each sculpture also responds to the context of its site, and some provide amenities for those walking the trail. 628nm has an integrated bench for people waiting at the finish line of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. The sculpture is positioned next to the finishing box and the number is the length in nautical miles between Sydney and Hobart.
While City Council’s brief called for 25 “markers” along the trail (based on a consultant’s recommendation), Futago refined the number to nine. “With a limited budget and the desire to focus on material qualities in each sculpture, we thought it best to reduce the overall number and thereby increase the budget for each,” says Abell.
Castle says City Council agreed. “Battery Point is a heritage precinct and Council didn’t want to clutter it with additional signage. So Futago’s proposal to create fewer but more significant sculptural destinations was an appropriate solution.”
Unique but unified
While each sculpture is different in form and material, the team created visual consistency by using a single typeface family and a consistent color scheme.
Futago chose Helvetica Neue as the primary typeface, both for sculptural form and interpretive content. “We felt it offered a really practical shape and weight/family range that we could manipulate depending on the materiality and form of the sculptures,” explains Kate Owen, Futago owner and Senior Designer. “And its clean lines didn’t detract from the interpretive content.”
A bold orange-and-gray graphic identity strengthens the visual links between the sculptures and wayfinding signage. Orange was chosen as the primary color for wayfinding to stand out from the busy urban environment. It also provides a visual link to the bright colors found around the waterfront, particularly the Aurora Australis, a large, bright orange scientific vessel often anchored in Hobart’s harbor between expeditions to Antarctica.
Futago devised a two-tiered wayfinding system. First, at the bottom of the interpretive panels accompanying the sculptures, there are simple directions to the next sculpture. “We figure people can remember three directions at most,” says Owen, “So they are told just two simple directions—go right here and left there—and then told to watch for directions along the way.” In between the sculptures, 15 directional markers are affixed to existing infrastructure along the route. These markers, in the rich orange for easy distance viewing, often carry only the next sculpture number and an arrow.
Futago’s material selections and construction techniques are unique for each sculpture, relating directly to the site-specific interpretive stories. That level of authenticity came with some ferocious fabrication and coordination challenges.
“Our biggest challenge was that each of the elements was custom in a number of ways,” says Abell. “The shapes were custom and the combinations of materials were custom. For example, we had problems with movement of materials in 12.43 [a sculpture marking an historic tide measurement house] because neither of our contractors had every combined resin and concrete in that way,” says Owen.
The team thought 2000—consisting of a 2.3m by 1.1m photo-etched aluminum plate bent over an existing masonry wall—would be one of the simplest sculptures to fabricate, as it didn’t require a footing, didn’t need to float, and couldn’t be smashed. “What we didn’t realize was how hard it might be to etch a plate this large,” says Abell. “It needed a special bath that we had to have made. We attempted the etching ourselves and the first version failed, which was pretty tough. We had to get specialist help from the University of Tasmania’s art school to get the etching mix and timing right, but when it did work, it was magic!”
Scale was a particular challenge, as the trail winds for almost 2 km against a breathtaking natural backdrop. The sculptures had to stand out in the environment, but not be too obtrusive. The team made full-scale cardboard mock-ups in some cases to ensure they felt right in their context, were visible from the right distances, but wouldn’t obstruct traffic.
Viewed from a distance, the huge numbers contrast with the sky and water and create curiosity in approaching viewers. Up close, tightly written text communicates the stories. And the sculpture materials add a unique interpretive layer.
Longevity was another significant issue and the team had to factor in rust, material movement with heat and cool, defense against vandalism (or ability to clean if it occurred), and structural stability in the event people decided to climb or jump on the sculptures.
One other significant challenge was coordinating approvals from each of the authorities on land and on water. The project involved three public landowners, one private landowner, 22 sites, 12 different materials, and 20 fabricators. The trail sits within two different planning schemes and on the land of private and public landowners. 313 had to be approved by the port authority. Many of the wayfinding elements had to be approved through the local telecoms company.
Castle says the sculpture trail has been a big success with locals and tourists alike, from schoolkids to cruise-ship visitors. “The project is overtly experimental in its use of materials and made coherent by the common use of numbers. Also, its simple, evocative forms fit sensitively in a heritage area. Council has had lots of positive comments and very few complaints about it—which for a project in the public realm is a resounding endorsement!”
Abell had a gratifying moment one day soon after the trail opened. “While I was checking on the lighting for 24, a stream of school kids raced into the park with maps in their hands shouting, ‘Here it is!’ They were experiencing it at its best, as a kind of treasure trail. I heard one of them say, ‘This is just like The Amazing Race!’”
--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 03, 2012
BATTERY POINT SCULPTURE TRAIL
Client: Hobart City Council
Location: Hobart, Tasmania
Project Area: 1.9km
Open Date: November 2010
Design: Futago in collaboration with Judith Abell and Chris Viney
Design Team: Daniel Zika concept and senior project manager, Judith Abell concept and project manager, Kate Owen concept and graphic designer, Chris Viney concept and interpretation research and writing, Scott Christensen design detailing, Jennifer Nichols design detailing, Ingrid Berger, Rebecca Adamczewski junior graphic designers
Fabrication: Aircon Industries steel/aluminum fabrication and installation, Eye Spy Signs signage fabrication and installation, Bruce Walters/Stone, Steel and Earth Landscaping stonemasonry, The Precasters shop drawings and concrete, Mark Large Fiberglass Service resign, Southern Lighting & Distribution lighting equipment, Digiglass Australia glass, Glass Supplies Pty. Ltd. glass installation, Unique Topiary topiary frame, Tristar Marine construction, West Marine mooring, VOS Construction & Joinery router cutting, EH Burgess & Co electrical installation, Typeface Design and Print flatbed printing, John Robinson and Milan Milojevic etching, Fred Barratt, Yacht Design and Naval Architecture construction design
Photos: Jonathan Wherrett, Luke Burgess