Maya Barkai’s crowdsourced art installation has brought pedestrian crossing symbols from around the world to New York’s streets
Only a block north from the construction barriers surrounding the former site of the World Trade Center, which brim with boastful renderings of progress on the nearly-complete September 11th Memorial, another, less conspicuous hole opens up in Lower Manhattan’s lapidary landscape. Compared to the blocks bordering Ground Zero, it’s a stretch of Church Street that’s relatively empty. Maybe that’s part of why the netting surrounding this construction site was passed up as glossy adspace showcasing the real estate to come and instead given over to art — currently, Israeli artist Maya Barkai’s installation “Walking Men,” which juxtaposes images of pedestrian walk signs from around the world.
In North America, it’s easy not to devote much thought to the design of “walking men”. While the pictograms are relatively new to the US — until recently, it was still not uncommon to come across a spelled-out “WALK” sign on the streets of New York — bright-white walk symbols are now not only fairly uniform across dense American cities, they’re also uniformly ignored by jaywalkers, who normally treat the signals as well-meaning but unnecessary suggestions.
Elsewhere, though, walk signals are much more diverse — and sometimes more meaningful. In Germany, pedestrians who cross against the light aren’t really braving traffic as much as the reproachful glances of those dutifully remaining at the opposite corner. From Munich to Münster, old women wait at otherwise empty street crossings for the signal to change — on principle. Ordnung — the organizing principle of German civilization — begins at the intersection.
That means quite a bit of time spent staring at, and significance attached to, pedestrian walk signals. And in Berlin, where no slice of urban fabric seems unaffected by the city’s tumultuous 20th century history, it’s been difficult not to notice the distinction between the quirky walk signals that dominated the former East Berlin and their much less intriguing counterparts in the West.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed given that the be-hatted East Berlin version, known colloquially as ampelmännchen, would join the hammer, sickle, and other iconography of the communist ancien régime in the dustbin of history. Instead, Ossis, as former Easterners are known, rallied around the signals — which had once even held starring roles as animated characters on East German children’s television — as ideologically neutral expressions of their disappearing past.
By 2004, when I spent time studying in Berlin, Germany was in the throes of Ostalgie, nostalgia for East Germany’s too-swiftly-disposed-of past. The ampelmännchen had become, along with the teacup-tiny Trabant car and the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin, which chronicled one former East German’s attempt to preserve the look and feel of the rapidly fading east around the sickbed of his dying (and devoutly communist) mother, a sort of cult symbol of the movement.
Ostalgie has tempered somewhat since, but a wildly successful store in Berlin’s Hackescher Markt that opened that year still hawks endless iterations of ampelmännchen merchandise to tourists, and ampelmännchen imitations have now sprung up in West Germany — it’s become a rare example of a symbol that helped reunite the country from east to west. The move has not been without controversy: while, since 2005, all Berlin now crosses its streets upon the appearance of cheery ampelmännchen, local officials stopped and rolled back their appearance in Heidelburg.
Beyond their historical and personal significance to many former East Germans, one of the things that made ampelmännchen so popular was their adaptability. Well before the fall of the East German regime, the private artisans who manufactured many of the lights often individualized their look, creating several distinct variations. Some ampelmännchen carried umbrellas, others rode bikes. In Saxon cities like Dresden and Zwickau, the ampelfrau — a feminine version of the signals — actually became the dominant form.
But while ampelmännchen are, perhaps, unique for all the notoriety they’ve garnered, they’re hardly the only original take on the pedestrian crossing light. Many cities have adopted signals that look like most others’, but some have adopted radically different designs — sometimes several of them within their own city limits. As Barkai’s installation demonstrates, quite a few manifestations of the usually familiar, glowing signs challenge the ampelmännchen for interest.
The first thing “Walking Men” makes clear is that not all walk signals are illuminated alike. Some, like Lima’s, are an especially diffuse constellation of individual lights; the figure of the walking man is barely evident. Others, like Berlin’s, are cut out of black sheets covering solid lamps, making their shapes fuller and giving expression to more well-defined forms.
There isn’t much cultural consistency to these methods. Take Latin America: while both Lima and Mexico City prefer a dot-matrix configuration in their walking men, Buenos Aires’ are solid. And while it would be fun to read narrower regional characteristics into them — one Buenos Aires variation includes a figure that appears to be sprinting, rather than walking, making it well-suited to represent the dash Argentines need to make to cross their capital’s yawningly expansive avenues — there is little that suggests most were designed with local, historical, or political peculiarities in mind. In fact, despite becoming a symbol of East Germany, the ampelmännchen was scrutinized when created for its ideologically incorrect, “petit bourgeois” hat.
Of course, some signals inevitably appear to reinforce particular urban stereotypes — a Paris signal has its hands in “pockets,” like one of the city’s idle, ambling, literary flâneurs; Salzburg’s signal dutifully includes cyclists, as you would expect from any small city in bike-friendly Central Europe — others seem to openly defy them. What to make, for example, of the hip-swaying, feminine form of the signals used in the small Dutch cities of Utrecht or Amersfoort? Or the toy soldier and top-hatted, cane-wielding forms from the Danish cities of Fredericia and Odense, which have a whimsy that belies their country’s reputation for cool, Scandinavian minimalism? Who would have placed Jakarta — with its wheelchair walk signals — at the symbolic forefront of the movement for disabled persons’ rights?
Nor is it really possible to get a sense, from “Walking Men” alone, of what global trends such signals really follow. Barkai’s installation contains disappointingly few examples from many important parts of the world — including Africa, North America, and the artist’s own Middle East. And because the installation is also limited to static crossing lights, it can’t do much to capture the growing number of alternative methods — including pedestrian countdown clocks and animated walking men — increasingly used at pedestrian crossings in Asia.
But Barkai’s work doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, merely thought-provoking. And it’s cosmopolitan enough to take New Yorkers out of their sometimes perplexingly provincial state of mind — a trait the introspective memorial set to open nearby will likely advance. While the city has seen more than its fair share of pop-up exhibitions and street fairs celebrating global trends and ideas urbanism this year, few of them aimed beyond the abstractions familiar to the architectural community to embrace the concrete variations of world cities’ streets.
And as much as it’s far from surprising that something so, no pun intended, pedestrian could connect New Yorkers to the experience of other cities on the ground, “Walking Men,” mounted as it is above New York’s own sidewalks, might get also them thinking more about strolling through their own city in others’ shoes — perhaps as a Berliner, who, while certainly aware that there’s nothing that truly divides in the design of a walk sign, might nonetheless ponder whether, as impatient Manhattanites step off the curb to cross streets well in advance of any authorization from the bright white lights of their walk signals, the reason is that the pointillistic, relatively abstract figure so often disobeyed by New Yorkers simply commands less respect than his own brightly burning, solidly outlined icon.
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