With Valentines day but two weeks away, you might be wondering how best to express your undying love for that special someone; and for many of us this will see the sort of soppy behaviour we tend not to condone the other 364 days of the year. However, where a box of chocolates and a bunch of roses used to do the job, over the past two decades or so there have emerged ever-increasing ways to materialise romantic feelings, and in an incredibly public way. I am, of course, referring to the initials-in-love-heart graffiti and the more recent phenomenon of “love-locks” adorning bridges and heritage sites across Europe.
While all this may be done in the name of love – surely a commendable motivation if any – it is, in short, vandalism – however romantically the idea is sold. One of the most cited examples of this phenomenon is the Casa di Julietta in Verona, Italy. Its incredibly vague links to Shakespeare’s classic has made it a must-see site for travelling romantics for years, and over that time it has seen millions of couples inspired by their amorously charged setting. In hoping to eternalise their passionate coupling, lovelorn teenagers (and undoubtedly older visitors who should know better) have found increasing significance in leaving a little bit of their love behind in the formation of graffiti – often initials framed in a crude love heart shape, or a short “poetic” declaration. This way, their names become part of the material fabric of the tale, belonging to an exclusive club of people – united by love – who have pilgrimaged to the site. That said, its increasing footfall has probably liquidated this exclusivity somewhat.
Nevertheless, it is clear that people find fulfillment in making their mark – of merging with the materiality of history itself. Which is, of course, much better if it comes with a good story. Presumably, it is hoped that through “emotional transmission” their written declarations may be perpetuated by the sites’ on-going life as a romantics mecca, and thus have a positive effect on the longevity of their relationship. But this ideology comes at a price, since it is a form of design activism often having detrimental effects. Juliet’s house was once a preserved 13th century house of good condition, now its entrance has been clad in unsympathetic wooden panels in a hope to protect the original stonework, which has already experienced more than its fair share of scribbling. Subsequently, these boards have been plastered in coloured pen, and more recently, layers of chewing gum, which has been added to facilitate new surfaces for new initials. Overall this is a considerable aesthetic offence, and quite frankly unhygienic – don’t just leave your initials; leave your salivated DNA too.
Due to the Italian novel Three Meters Above the Sky by Italian author Fedirico Moccia, and subsequent social media momentum, bridges have also become key sites of a similar vein. If we venture a little to the south, to Florence’s famous Ponte vecchio, the practice lives on a similar matter, though admittedly not to such a concentrated extent, and not always in the name of love.
This historic bridge is now clad in graffiti which is secretly added to in the wee hours, though presumably by a very specific perpetrator. Like most cultural sites managed by the government, there exists the habitual WARNING sign. This is tellingly in English rather than Italian suggesting that the scribbling phenomenon is a tourist fad, but more specifically an English and American one. Naughty us.
Despite the pessimism of squirming historians and conservators, the addition of love-tokens are also detrimental to the structural and ‘architectural integrity’ of design. This is mostly in the case of bridges that are seemingly buckling under the weight of thousands of metal padlocks, if newspaper sensationalism and government protestation is to be believed. In fact, the New York Times amusingly raise the issue not of preservation but of a specifically French attitude. It seems that the idea that a lock could represent love is an abhorrent idea to many French people, it being nothing but ‘puerile fantasy’. Of this, there is no doubt, but the metaphor appeals to a sense of faith built into the sturdy foundations of shared experience, which has now become viral and almost obligatory in nature.
However, we have to wonder if it’s all bad. While heritage sites, or impressive bridges are key cultural sites, they gain a new layer of meaning – this inadvertently becoming a tourist attraction in its own right, thus increasing visitor numbers. Most cultural centers enjoy this influx. Indeed, the transformation of bridges is perhaps the most poignant example of this. Bridges are, in nature, functional design, with handrails and balustrades acting as physical support systems and safety barriers. However, the addition of padlocks of different shapes, sizes and colours add a inexplicably decorative element to this functionality, encouraging meditation on their significance and the thousands of keys laying beneath the river flowing underfoot. Undoubtedly, it appeals to a societal sentimentalism that has made this form of vandalism a protected practice no longer carried out undercover in the dead of night. Design activism is not always a negative thing, and in this case governmental bodies often order the removal of love-locks when necessary for preservation requirements. But this doesn’t seem to matter since its significance is found primarily in the ritual of attaching the lock and throwing away the key. It is an emotional therapy in which the lock, and its mechanism, facilitates a stronger sense of commitment and permanence in the mental sphere for both participants. This is also the case for graffiti; that it may be removed in time is not wholly important since it exists in a liminal mentality shared between those who created. Functional design as sites for activism can thus mediate emotional partnerships, and emotional attachments to geographical spaces.
Design is a fluid concept, the contemporary affection of old design is not always a bad development, it is simply an expressive social phenomenon. Though that is not to say that this article is to encourage you to run riot through the streets of London with permanent markers or pockets full of padlocks. Conservation and perseveration has to be heavily considered. Luckily both graffiti and love-locks are reversible additions. However, one has to be careful about their expressions of undying love even in these forms; indeed ‘from time to time a dejected ex-lover has been seen desperately hacking at a padlock with a pair of pliers.’ So as Valentines Day draws closer consider the social and design implications of your actions. While in one opinion you may be an inspirational romantic, you may equally be ruining perfectly good design in another.
Hollie Chung –
Hollie’s academic background is in Art History where she received a BA from The University of York. Since joining the RCA/V&A course in the history of design, she has acted as course rep for the Renaissance strand, and developed an avid interest in the material fabrics of renaissance devotion. Her dissertation research is situated in the female convents of late sixteenth century Venice, exploring heightened notions of personal and religious object agency during the reformative visitation period. Hollie volunteers as an assistant for the V&A’s Sculpture department as well as undertaking an internship with a modern design gallery of Austrian and Mexican material culture.
© Hollie Chung 2014. All Rights Reserved.