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Sign of the Times

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Pentagram-designed New York Times sign recently installed on the paper’s new headquarters.

Last week, the Times Square district gained its latest sign as the logo of the New York Times was installed on the Eighth Avenue facade of its new Renzo Piano-designed headquarters tower.

But what looks like a simple sign—if a 110-foot-long logo set as a 10,116-point version of the newspaper’s iconic Fraktur font can be called simple—is actually an intricate assemblage of nearly a thousand separate custom-designed pieces, each a painted extruded aluminum sleeve a little more than three inches in diameter.

The story of how and why Pentagram came to design the sign after the jump.

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Close-up of the ceramic rods that compose the New York Times sign.

When the New York Times decided to leave the antiquated building three blocks to the north they had occupied since 1913, they held a design competition for its new headquarters. The Paris- and Genoa-based Renzo Piano Building Workshop won, beating submissions from Cesar Pelli, Frank Gehry and Norman Foster. Piano’s proposal was rational and elegant: a tower of floor-to-ceiling ultra-clear glass walls, veiled with a second skin of horizontal white ceramic rods on an aluminum frame. The rods, lovely and diaphonous, also have a functional purpose: they shield the glass walls from direct sunlight and reduce the heat gain that usually requires tinted glass, while they bounce light onto the interior walls. The result, realized by Piano with collaborating architects FXFowle, has been heralded as the city’s most important corporate skyscraper since Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building of 1965.

This elegant building, however, borders Times Square; it was the newspaper’s pre-1913 building on 42nd Street, in fact, that gave the district its name. Consequently, the design of the new building was subject to the district’s special zoning requirements established by Robert A.M. Stern and Tibor Kalman in 1993. Meant to preserve the area’s unique character, the zoning mandates specific minimum size requirements for signs and displays, including that signs be large (based on ratios of sign area to overall elevation area) and applied (added to the building rather than subtly integrated).

The question, then, was: how do you add a block-long, 15-foot-tall blackletter logo to the front of a minimalist building without obstructing the view of the Times staffers working inside? The answer was to break the sign up into smaller pieces, 959 of them to be exact. Each letter in the Times logo was rasterized, that is, divided into narrow horizontal strips, ranging in number from 26 (the i in “Times”) to 161 (the Y in “York”).

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Beaks that project the sign from the building’s facade enhancing its visibility from the street.

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Production of the sign in Portland, Oregon.

Each resulting piece was then made into a three dimensional form that could be fitted over the building’s ceramic sunscreen rods. A number of shapes were considered; Pentagram’s designers ultimately decided on something they called a “beak,” which added an additional two inches of projection to enhance the sign’s street level visibility. The result is a sign that is dramatically legible from outside, but that can barely be seen from the inside. It at once satisfies the area’s signage requirements, while integrating perfectly with the structure’s distinctive facade.

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The sign is composed of 959 individual pieces.

The building’s landmark sign is only the most visible manifestation of Pentagram’s involvement with the project, the New York Times and its development partner Forest City Ratner Companies, a collaboration that included signage within the building’s public spaces and office floors. Pentagram also designed the building’s website; created the marketing materials to support the leasing of floors not occupied by the Times; art directed the documentation of the construction effort by the legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz; developed an identity for TheTimesCenter, the building’s state-of-the-art auditorium; updated the Times’s stationery and business cards; and even provided decorations for the plates in the newspaper’s corporate cafeteria.

Photos courtesy George H. Mow at AMEC Construction Management.