At the Renzo Piano-designed New York Times Building, Pentagram melds signage, architecture, and brand identity for Times Squares’ founding tenant.
When Pentagram was brought on to conceive the façade identity for The New York Times Building, it was obvious that signage should be integrated with the building’s innovative brise soleil, a curtain wall of white ceramic rods designed to control light and heat intake.
“That was a given,” says Pentagram principal Michael Bierut. But less obvious—and where the project’s real creativity came into play—was how to honor architect Renzo Piano’s modernist aesthetic, the Times’ venerable history, and the Times Square zoning district codes. Those codes demand that signs be large (with minimum sizes based on ratios of sign area to overall elevation area), flashy, and applied to the building rather than integrated.
“An appliqué wouldn’t work,” says David Thurm, the Times’ senior vice president and chief information officer. “We had to go to them and say, ‘Your codes don’t fit with Renzo Piano design and they don’t fit with The New York Times.’ Remarkably, they were very open to working with us.”
While the New York City Planning Commission allowed some flexibility, the Times’ sign still needed to be very large and physically attached to the building. So the design team began exploring ways to piggyback it onto the curtain wall, which is comprised of 170,000 ceramic rods, each 15-in. in diameter. (The rods were manufactured by a Leipzig, Germany, company that makes ceramic sewer pipes and the curtain wall was built by Benson Global, Portland, Ore.)
And it was important to do this without blocking anyone’s view from inside the building, says Tracey Cameron, Pentagram associate partner. “We came up with the idea of a sleeve or ‘beak’ that would slide over the ceramic rods, with a slightly different color and thickness to create some kind of profile.” Cameron did an exhaustive series of studies to explore colors, shapes, and materials. White on white, for example, was deemed too subtle. The “beaks” that would fit over the rods had to be extremely lightweight so as not to compromise the curtain wall’s functional integrity.
After creating countless computer renderings, scale models, and even mounting prototype letters on a building to assess different colors at various times of the day, the team finally decided on a subtle gray for the 3-in. diameter, tear-shaped extruded-aluminum beaks that were placed over rods cut to accommodate them.
Bierut initially voted that shortening the company name to just “The Times” would allow for huge letters and a major “holy shit” factor. But the client decided that formality was appropriate and opted for its full name.
The new sign is plenty big enough. In 10,116-pt. Times Fraktur, the iconic font that adorns the newspaper’s masthead, the logo stretches 115-ft. long along the Eighth Avenue facade and is 40-ft. tall. It consists of 996 beak pieces formed when the logo was rasterized, then divided into narrow horizontal strips ranging from 26 pieces for the “i” in Times to 161 for the “y” in York.
Figuring out the layout was like working a gigantic puzzle, says Cameron. “The ceramic rods are in five-foot modules, so we had to shift the letters around slightly to avoid those breaks.”
Thurm is happy with the result. The sign is highly visible and clearly identifiable as belonging to the modern-day Gray Lady, but well integrated with the architecture and not overbearing. “The lesson here is, you don’t start with the rulebook. You start with what the architecture needs.”
--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 21, 2008
“This exemplifies the rare case of perfection between architecture and signage conceived in a totally integrated execution. The application technique is innovative and truly unique to the building. The feeling of modern technology expressed through the banding strips of the skin, contrasted with the Fraktur font, reflect where the future of the company is headed.”
“The design detailing of this solution creates a perfect marriage of sign and building façade, achieving a bold yet subtle statement in a single gesture.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES BUILDING FAÇADE
Location: New York
Client: The New York Times, Forest City Ratner Companies
Architecture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop, FXFOWLE Architects
Design Team: Michael Bierut (principal in charge), Tracey Cameron (project manager), Michelle Leong, Tamara McKenna
Fabrication: Benson Global
Photos: Peter Mauss/Esto Photographics