A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins
A glazed A, a half-timbered E, an I in brick, a U in steel beams, an O in dimension stone, etc. It is not unusual to catch a glimpse of a gigantic letter of the alphabet in the silhouette or fragment of a building. It can even be said that the capacity to produce such visions is fundamental to architecture, its “imageability”, as Kevin Lynch so carefully described it in his famous book The Image of the City (1960). Conversely, when seen from top or the side, extruded or intertwined, letters can evoke interesting architectural projects. It is this complex play of influences that informs The Typotectural Suites.
1. In Search of Lost Figuration
Parallel to the anthropomorphic compositions, enjoyed since at least the Middle Ages, the ambivalences between architecture and typography have been enthusiastically explored by the authors of pictorial alphabets. The most famous of these may have been that engraved by Italian artist Antonio Basoli in 1839. In the tiers of an ancient theatre, an enormous letter N stands out, the sloped roof of an oratory makes an A, a triumphal arch makes an O, etc. Having consulted this album, we find ourselves searching for letters in the rest of his graphic creations.
In the work of Jean Baptiste de Pian, who published an architectural pictorial alphabet at the same time (1843), the glazed sides of a large greenhouse clearly suggest the first letter of the alphabet, while the roaring fire that has just been lit in a fireplace perfectly outlines the well-defined contours of a letter F lit from behind. Their contemporary Théophile Schuler’s illustrations for Le Premier livre des petits enfants (The First Book of the Young Children, 1843) are more subtle and suggestive. In the everyday scenes represented, the letters are not immediately evident. Even if the illustrations are intended for young children, the painter does not exaggerate the lines, asserting that:
the shapes of all letters exist in nature, and that without assaulting things or tormenting creatures, when arranged correctly, can take the shapes of all the letters of our alphabet.
Two inquisitive girls partially open the shutters of a window topped with a small œil-de-boeuf and suddenly a letter i is revealed in the shadows. Two children grasp the mechanism of a lock and promptly water flows into the hollow of a U-shaped pipe. Entitled Letters Everywhere and published in 1869, the US edition starts with this prophecy:
Do you think A, B and C are only to be found in books? Did you never meet them in the fields, and in the streets, and in the houses? […] When you have looked at all these pictures, you will be able to find letters wherever you go.
In Greek mythology, did Palamedes himself not invent letters of the alphabet as he attentively scanned the landscape? In 1839, the writer Victor Hugo fell prey to a typographical hallucination as he was crossing the Alps. He saw the letter Y everywhere. This vision inspired in the man who had already so deftly analysed the rivalries between printing and architecture to reflect with interest on how letters are drawn. This resulted in a surprising passage that acts as an alphabet primer - a perfect literary equivalent of the aforementioned illustrated albums:
A is a roof, a gable with its traverse […]. E is a basement, an upright, a console and stem, an architrave, the whole architecture of ceilings in a single letter. […] H is the front of an edifice with its two towers […] M is a mountain or a camp with its tents joined together, N is a closed door with its diagonal bar.
There are countless examples of pictorial alphabets that are architectural in nature. These not only delighted the numerous fans of oddities of the very eclectic 19th century but still maintain their appeal today. More topical now than ever, regularly reinterpreted by contemporary illustrators, these images take us beyond the purely mental, abstract and communal relationships we usually have with the letters of the Latin alphabet. They are, as historian of writing Anne-Marie Christin reminds us, no longer ideograms or pictograms.
The phonetic value of letters and the detour they force us to make in order to access the verbal meaning have distracted us from the visual communication which they also contribute to the medium.
The following can help us to momentarily strip letters of their spontaneous correspondence to phonetics, Christin states:
the memory of childhood learning, when letters did not lead fully to reading but fascinated like magical objects, mysterious instigators of science and new pleasures but which were in advance attributed to our daydreams.
It is therefore no coincidence that most architectural pictorial alphabets are primarily aimed at children. Dreaming of living in the depths of the letters involves attempting to surreptitiously return to this very brief phase of our lives when we were not merely content to intellectualise letters, when we were not seeking merely to decipher the alphabet despite being urged to do so. Like Arthur Rimbaud who coloured his vowels, the child who sees the I like a large industrial chimney stack, the O like the entrance to a tunnel, re-sensorialises the alphabet through the prism of his own personality, i.e. according to a frame of reference that is not necessarily shared on the scale of an entire country. The child takes ownership of it. It is precisely because it is sensually so rich that the architectural model recurs so often and so spontaneously in this type of operation. The typographer Massin celebrates the person who dreams of nestling in the downstrokes and dwelling in the upstrokes:
at all times, there is a constant concern - either secret or open - to find in the drawings of the letters of our alphabet the traces of a lost figuration.
According to Massin, it is completely legitimate to fight against the alphabet’s “geometric dryness”, and aim to “rediscover, buried under millennia of civilisations, image-words, drawings that speak, the sign-items of the first writings”. In alphabet, let’s not forget, there is bet, a Phoenician letter which derives from a hieroglyph in the shape of a house.
2. A is for Analogy
If architectural models are used to re-sensorialise letters, typesetting can in turn be used to restore the semantics of architecture or the urban fabric, often considered too eclectic or difficult to understand. Typographical references or analogies are frequently used by the theorists of architecture and urban planning. Kevin Lynch, stresses the legibility that is required of every city by making the following connection:
Just as this printed page, if it is legible, can be visually grasped as a related pattern of recognisable symbols, so a legible city would be one whose districts or landmarks or pathways are easily identifiable and are easily grouped into an over-all pattern.
He identifies two limits which apply to both page layouts and urban planning: on one hand “complete chaos without hint of connection” which is “never pleasurable”, and on the other “undifferentiated matrix” within which “elements cannot always be located with confidence”. In 1980, the architect Steven Holl dedicated a study to these “contiguous portions of cities that evolved on gridiron plans” which he expressly titled The Alphabetical City.
It’s important to decipher the elements – the ABC’s – of making architecture within modern cities.
His investigation shows how the “types” of buildings, often skyscrapers, that occupy these grids developed very gradually in parallel with the demands of the latest technological innovations (elevators, air conditioning, etc.), under economic pressure and regulations such as the New York Zoning Law of 1916. He was not the first to develop a typological approach to architecture. In his famous Précis (1802-1805), Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand established a method to break down any building into a limited number of basic geometrical elements. These elements, positioned on a grid, can allow the designer to break free from the history of architecture and come up with combinations which are both original and economical in their realisation. The idea is to return to a degree zero of architectural creation. The architect rightly believes these fundamental “graphic formulae” to be as rich and varied as those brought about by “elements of language”. For Steven Holl, type must be understood in both senses of the word: a basic schema and typographical character. These are the letter shapes he identifies in ground planes of such cities as New York, Chicago or Seattle. “An alphabet begins to form”. His alphabet is incomplete because it results from an observation of the existing landscape. Only nine letters are presented in his summary: B, E, H, I, L, O, T, U and X.
certain letter-like buildings recurred. The “U”, “E”, “L”, or the “I” type depend on their adjoining structures for meaning. They become “dead letters” when left stranded as free-standing buildings.
The interactions of these different types, their juxtaposition and their syntax within a block are the real concern of this research. Contrary to what Geoffrey Tory suggested quite succinctly in his Champ fleury, a typographical treatise published in 1529, the types identified do not on their own dictate any specific use. If we wanted to rationalise and standardise the drawing of letters according to Tory’s instructions, they could well be used as outlines, from a front or side view, to determine the forms of various buildings: D would make a beautiful theatre, O an arena, I a long gallery, etc. On the other hand, Steven Holl demonstrated that, in practice, in the American urban fabric, a building with a H shape, well suited for a hotel, could later be a private house, while a U could be used successively by a department store, a restaurant or a bank. However, the adjacency of these characters, their “kerning” – to use the typographer’s jargon – can be rather problematic.
This search, a reconsideration of the architectural element in cities, probes an architecture in which each object is subordinate to a larger whole. An individual building is to the continuous space of a city as a letter is to a sentence or a word. Syntax here does not concern elements within a building, but the syntax of building within a city.
The analogy between text and urban fabric recurs persistently. Surprisingly, it goes unmentioned in architect O.M. Ungers’ 1982 publication City Metaphors, a juxtaposition of plans of metropolises and photographs of plants, textiles, skeletons, organisms and mechanisms. However, this collection had aims which were more heuristic than analytical.
In employing the method of analogy, it should be possible to develop new concepts and to discover new relationships.
In his architectural work, Steven Holl strove to reinterpret, with great originality, this typological repertoire influenced by the alphabet, which was quite unprecedented.
More than the density of major US cities in the era of skyscrapers, it was the exuberance of the Baroque period that enabled Johann David Steingruber to create twenty-six plans in the shapes of letters and even to specify the possibility of constructing these magnificent architectures. The architect could not resist the temptation of writing “palatial words” with this Architectonisches Alphabet (1773), in this case the monograms of dignitaries from whom he hoped to obtain commissions. Concurrently, the architects Thomas Gobert and Anton Glonner were also thinking along the same lines, though no direct influence can be seen in the buildings they worked on. Of these projects that are part of the “speaking” architecture movement - of which Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Oïkema (1780) is definitely the most famous example – none were developed it beyond the blueprint stage.
In the 1960s, when the radical Italian architects of the Archizoom Associati group drew on the typographical field, it was for a different reason: they wanted to demonstrate the shortcomings of a “non-figurative architectonic language”. They used the abstract typographical frameworks of concrete poetry, “spatialism” in particular (Seiichi Niikuni, Pierre and Ilse Garnier, etc.), to mock the recent developments in urban planning - already envisaged at the time by Durand. Recalling some pages of the obscure Arno Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum, which had just been recently published, the plans for their No-Stop City (c. 1970) were not drawn but rather typed on a typewriter. One mechanically repeated character represents a load-bearing beam, while another conveys vertical circulation or a utility duct. From these compulsively pressed keys, one might imagine the plan for a harrowing “homogenous, non-discontinuous city” or, to use their vocabulary, a completely neutral “diagram of housing” which pushed the urban models planned by Hilberseimer, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier or Victor Gruen to the extreme.
Reading a text, discovering a word or at least an enormous letter as you fly over an area is a timeless fantasy, demonstrated by the geoglyphs in the Nazca desert in Peru (500 BC) and the sleeve of the album Neighborhood (2011) by Blink-182, designed by Mike Giant. One would very much like to see literary fragments or cartographical inscriptions abounding in the landscape, materialising, becoming hybridised, or even emerging together with it. In the comic book Philémon by Fred, the letters designating the Atlantic Ocean on a world map are actually real archipelagos to be explored. Overloaded with blocks of text or reduced to a few lines of writing, the city plans of contemporary artist Jan Rothuizen also bear witness to this yearning.
3. M for Living in
Every day, city dwellers “follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it”, notes philosopher Michel de Certeau. According to the author of The Practice of Everyday Life, however, a climb to the top of a very tall tower, might provide the first inklings of legibility.
It transforms the bewitching world by which one was “possessed” into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god.
Such a climb makes “the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text”. Claes Oldenburg discussed this phenomenon in 1968 in the work City as Alphabet: housing blocks, photographed from above and enhanced, are transformed into batches of letters and numbers. As he acknowledged in a note which recalls the texts of Michel de Certeau, the artist likes to look at the city from above. In his work, he favours this “distant, comprehensive, responsive […], pseudo-godly” viewpoint, because it opens up the “imagination of facts below on the basis of hints and bare suggestions seen from afar”.
No word stands out clearly as yet from this typotectural skyline, but a message does definitely emerge. This is evidenced by a plan for a museum sketched by the pioneer of pop art in the very same notebook. The letters of the word museum, represented axonometrically to assert their monumentality, have been stacked one upon the other. In order to balance the masses of such an architecture, Oldenburg leverages the almost palindromic nature of this word-project. He reworks the order of his letters, at the risk of disturbing their legibility. Referring to a sequel to this project, assumedly even more figurative in style, he asserts:
In the scale I imagine, the source of the structure would not be obviously identifiable, except from an airplane.
This kind of typotectural play, distinguishable only in axonometry, became the trademark and signature of graphic designer Takenobu Igarashi who, in 1968, was just embarking upon his career.
Words in forms of architectures, and architectures in forms of words have long been observed in images used for publicity and politics (Mihály Biró (fig. 23)). They also recur through the history of cinema posters (Boris Bilinsky, Lutz Rohrbach, 20st Century Fox). Yet Oldenburg, in his project, strove to go beyond mere representation. He wanted to actually build “habitable letters”. This was somewhat unprecedented at the time.
In the gardens of Castle Ashby House, a balustrade was built using stone lettering and a long sentence extends into the landscape. Self-supporting letters of the same kind can be found on the gothic façade of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos and along the church gallery of Notre-Dame-des-Marais in La Ferté-Bernard. These are not spaces, however.
Wishing to break away from merely imitating historical models, and interested by the abstract character of the letter, which was undergoing a transformation, the modern avant-garde movement proposed much more explicit convergences between architecture and typography, between spaces and words. The commercial kiosks designed by Lajos Kassák, Jo Klek and Herbert Bayer, the political fora of the Vesnin brothers and of Gustav Klutsis, Oscar Nitzchké’s Maison de la publicité, the De Volharding cooperative building by Jan Buijs (fig. 30)… all these architectures, most of which did not make it beyond the planning stage, were considered as fully-fledged information systems from the moment they were sketched. Yet, here again, these are not what might be called habitable letters.
Fortunato Depero’s futurist pavilions, which he himself called “architettura tipografica” are an exception to this trend. Encouraged by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and nourished by his own experience as a graphic designer, Depero very literally set Parole in libertà. His Padiglione del Libro (Book pavilion), created in 1927 for an Italian publisher, features “giant, interpenetrating, wraparound, superimposed letters” and “three large windows composed of the gigantic words carved in the walls”. As the photographs which bear witness to this temporary micro-architecture show, Depero proposed that visitors should immerse themselves in the thicknesses of the letters.
Claes Oldenburg was most likely aware of some of these projects. He carried out in-depth research in the field of architecture and he even worked with Frank Gehry. However, his interest in type design, for example his discussions with Wim Crouwel, is less well-known. In addition to his sculptures of giant objects, which garnered more attention in the media, Oldenburg created many alphabets, soft, padded, melting or backwards. He pointed out inscriptions in the streets of New York, stuffed entire maps with numbers, filled letters with kapok, made calendars with wadded fabric numbers, etc. If he was so interested in typographical signs, it was in the way they suddenly burst into everyday life to take up position, in neon lighting, like genuine pop motifs, from the street level to skyscraper rooftops, like the Good Humor Bar, the hamburger, Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe. The famous sculpture Love that Robert Indiana installed in Philadelphia in 1970 or Ivan Chermayeff’s thick red Nine (1974) in New York are other examples of this sensibility.
During the period when Oldenburg was working on his museum project, modernist concerns became reality, although sometimes in doubtful mutations in which their intentions fell into confusion. The growing number of typographical manuals intended for architects demonstrates that the illegibility which so troubled Kevin Lynch and Michel de Certeau was gaining ground. Lettering on Buildings (Gray, 1960), Lettering on Architecture (Bartram, 1975), Words and Buildings (Kinneir, 1980)... The latter, well-illustrated publication was written by a leading graphic designer who warns his contemporaries:
If public lettering was just a larger size of type there would be little to interest us. Yet, quite apart from the question of the extra dimension, there are obviously a host of different relationships to be explored. Buildings and people, rather than pages, are the frame of reference, and sometimes even the sky and open fields.
There is a new urgency to reassess the relationship between the architect who “tends to think of lettering as something which can be dealt with later” and the graphic designer who “prefers to be involved at the planning stage”.
These concerns are also developed in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s momentous study of the Strip. Immersing themselves in an “architecture made up of signs and brands”, the three architects attempted to reassert “the persuasive heraldry that pervades our environment from the advertising pages of The New Yorker to the super-billboards of Houston” in order to achieve mastery over it.
Claes Oldenburg’s typotectural museum, while it may be similar to these “sculptural architectures” that Venturi et al identified in Las Vegas, fits into neither of the two famous categories they defined at the time. It is not a “decorated shed”, as branding is not tacked onto the museum but rather is the museum. Neither is it a “duck” - named after the retail poultry store in Flanders, which takes the shape of the animal – because there, the disordered letters of the word do not symbolise anything in themselves.
Two other icons of contemporary architectural typical of American folklore can be compared more directly to Oldenburg’s project. On one hand, the architecture of McDonald’s first restaurants, where the Golden Arches, both structural and descriptive, take the shape of the giant M, the brand’s logo from 1962 (fig. 32). On the other hand, the A-frame houses which were highly popular in the USA in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates were enthusiasts of these architectural signs which are “both ordinary in their symbolic meanings and extraordinary in their scale and formal expressions”. They went on to create their own versions in 1998 at Kamp Kippy in Maine (fig. 33).
At the turn of the century, following the frenetic rise of non-standard architecture and unbridled façadism, Claes Oldenburg’s remarkable plan was merely one formalistic idea among many. It was realized several times and became almost banal. The cultural centre designed by Ashton Raggat McDougall takes the shape of the name of the city in which it was built, Marion, Australia. Latin letters are not the only ones to offer such architectural potential: in 2010, the design studio Mass Studies, employed the Korean alphabet Hangul, in their plans for a pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. This clustering of giant jamos (the letters of the Korean alphabet) determined the general proportions, silhouette and distribution of interior spaces for this temporary architecture. The artist Ik-Joong Kang was invited to design each façade using images and jamos at different scales. However, the counterparts to some of these typographical units were folded outward to further disrupt the legibility.
4. Another Letter in the Wall
Builders have often played with construction materials, paving, bricks or tiles, to integrate indelible inscriptions in the structure of an architecture. The Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel, who created many character fonts, including the highly experimental New Alphabet (1967), was very early on in his career inspired by this vernacular imagery. A few decades earlier, his peer and fellow Dutchman Hendricus Theodorus Wijdeveld, who had trained as an architect, had already proposed that movable-type blocks could be seen as miniature bricks to be assembled. He approached the composition of the printed page with the same intuition as a construction worker, for example in his magazine Wendingen (1918-1932). He called this “typographic masonry”. We know that the approach has often been emulated, amongst others by Richard Niessen – as the founder of this Palace – of course.
Robert Mallet-Stevens created his own reinterpretation. In the first years of his career, through contact with Wijdeveld, the French architect practiced graphic design. He drew posters and wallpaper patterns and this had a strong influence on his subsequent architectural practice. In the numerous advertising stands and international exhibition pavilions he designed, logos and letters became architectonic components, the slogans became posts, brands became lintels. The convergence between these two worlds is at its most radical in the Villa Cavrois project (1932), which is much more hermetic and less directly legible. Much to the dismay of the masons working on the site and also of its modern-day conservators, the architect commissioned the production of a series of twenty-six different bricks in order to cover the reinforced concrete volumes of this prestigious residence as smoothly as possible. This specific number is meaningful: the architect quite literally created an alphabet. In this way, he could create his façades like a skilful scholar or a typesetter paying attention to the type colour. How many secret alphabets exist like this one, hidden in the depths of the architecture surrounding us? The Villa Cavrois is certainly not an isolated example.
Several toys have been invented to initiate us from the earliest age into the hermetic rhetoric of architectural alphabets. In the early 1930s, the artist Joaquín Torres García, known in particular for having worked with Antoni Gaudí, mass-produced game boxes containing twenty-six quaint little architectural forms (Village and Abecedario, c. 1930). Like the well-known cubes on which the letters of the alphabet are painted or engraved, these mini-monuments – church, tower, shop, house – sculpted quite coarsely in wood, each have a letter of the alphabet displayed very clearly on the façade. Writing a word automatically creates a charming village square and vice versa.
The twenty-six wooden Sculptures alphabétiques (Alphabetical sculptures) created in 1997 by the French graphic designer Paul Cox are much more abstract. With organic shapes painted in bright colours, they are unlike any typographical characters, building blocks or architectural models. In their box however, they are arbitrarily placed in alphabetical order, once again connected to a specific letter of the Latin alphabet. They look so much like a building set that one cannot but take them out of their box, handle them, assemble them and begin to build with them. Or should we say write with them? Paul Cox, who likes secret codes so much, is perplexing us here.
Finally, the Scatola di Architettura (Architectural box, 1945) created by Italian designer Bruno Munari only contains seven different geometric shapes - repeated in six, twelve or twenty-four wooden pieces. These are nevertheless called A, B, C, D, E, F and G due to their subtle resemblance to these Latin letters. This is explicitly stated in a rudimentary Rosetta Stone included in the construction kit. However, the author of the famous libri illeggibili was determined that children should not focus solely on this alphabet:
Why not make an imaginary alphabet… fantastic, unpredictable, in letters of all shapes and sizes, materials and colours, thrown happily into the air…
This is suggested in the coloured glass Dandanah building blocks, the construction kit designed by Bruno Taut and Blanche Mahlberg in 1919. From the outset, neither the quantity nor the types of models provided resembled anything else in the field of construction or typography. The idea was not to reproduce existing forms, but to transmute them, to erect a “fairy palace”, a crystal Angkor, a new world that draws its inspiration from the poet Paul Scheerbart. This glass brick alphabet could be used to create an original and above all impenetrable architectural language. Bruno Taut acknowledged this in one of the Crystal Chain letters, a top-secret epistolary correspondence between a dozen German expressionist architects in 1919:
My sign language – to be the hieroglyph myself. From there come “building ideas”.
The architect Paul Goesch, who was close to this secret circle, was sometimes subject to violent bouts of speaking in tongues. In the iridescent interlacing and other arabesques of an impossible to untangle unknown language, in which he wrote compulsively, astounding architectural forms transpired…
According to some hermetic traditions like the ecstatic Kabbalah , God created the world using a combination of Hebrew letters. Umberto Eco also recalls that in the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation written between the 2nd and 6th centuries) one can read:
Twenty-two foundation letters: He ordained them, He hewed them, He combined them, He weighed them, He interchanged them. And He created with them the whole creation and everything to be created in the future.
Thus, any architecture may be encoded and decoded, with holy sites emerging as prestigious terrain for enquiry. In the Auraicept na n-Écès (a linguistic treatise written between the 7th and 12th centuries), the construction of the Tower of Babel is compared to the structure of language. Victor Hugo claimed that the “Pagoda of Eklinga, the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Temple of Solomon” are “dark and mysterious books, which only the initiated can decipher”. It is also well demonstrated by Joseph Rykwert in his essay The Dark Side of the Bauhaus that even within this so-called rationalist school, there was interest in occult languages and ancient esoteric signs, convinced that these held hidden truths, lost lessons of building, and rites rich with architectural possibilities. Was it not in the megalithic site of Stonehenge that Dom Hans van der Laan, a Dutch modernist architect who became a Benedictine monk, found the confirmation of his assumptions regarding the “Plastic Number”? He applied this science of proportions and intervals supported by listening to music, using mathematical theories on the Golden Ratio both three-dimensionally and phenomenologically, in his 1967 architectural project St. Benedictusberg Abbey, to furniture designs and also, unsurprisingly, to the type design of his Alphabet in Stone.
Of course, graphic designers were also prone to probing the esoteric combinatory logics inscribed in the depths of architecture, as in the theories recounted by Umberto Eco in his The Search for the Perfect Language, where “numerology, magic geometry, music, astrology and Lullism were all thrown together”. When he visited the chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut (1955) built by Le Corbusier in Ronchamp, Dutch graphic designer Karel Martens immediately identified the presence of an unknown language:
From my own viewpoint as a typographer, I was struck by the way the openings in the walls are ordered in different sizes. It seems not to be ordered according to any grid or rigid system, as is usual in architecture (and typography).
In 2007, following this particularly memorable experience, he attempted to draft, with the assistance of David Bennewith, a prototype that could provide rich graphic extrapolations of “this ultimate symbol of free and independent thinking”.
Let us now wander through The Typotectural Suites, the new extension of this “fairy” Palace of Typographic Masonry, and discover an boundless collection of language towers, typographic islands, cities to decipher, plans in the shape of letters, encrypted walls, speaking bricks, habitable capitals, and many other specimens of this kind.