Is there anything that defines a city more comprehensively – and more subtly – than the simple street sign? As essential way-finding artefacts for pedestrians and drivers alike, the street signs of any city are under constant scrutiny, even if the information we take from them is often entirely practical: in the heat of the moment we look for street names alone and give little thought to anything else.
Yet in giving the street names a particular visual presentation, the signs of a city – their colour, shape, typeface and even physical location – form an essential part of the urban experience. Paris without its blue enamel plaques on the sides of buildings would be a very different place, although it might take us a while to figure out exactly what had changed; the economical green (sometimes brown) signs spelling out the intersections from the side of traffic-light poles in New York City are, in their own way, as iconic as the yellow cabs found only a few feet below.
Berlin, like any great city, has its own unmistakable style of street sign.
In fact, it has two. Conventional wisdom has it that street signs in the former West Berlin were written in one typeface – it exists in numerous weights and widths but is recognisable by its distinctive Eszett, as well as its ‘tz’ ligature – while the street signs in the former East Berlin were written in a no-less-distinctive but much narrower face.
Even the method of production differed between the two: while the ‘West’ signs have the black letters placed on a white plaque, the ‘East’ ones are inscribed with a router giving them their unique rounded edges. Although the face found on the ‘West’ signs has become the norm in the unified city, there are enough of the ‘East’ signs still in active use to form a distinct geographical subset.
The division of the city into ‘West’ and ‘East’ signs, however, is only half the story. In fact, Berlin’s street signs are home to dozens of different faces, and even in the very heart of the city it is still possible to stumble onto areas where the signage has gone unchanged since the early twentieth century. Of course, before the Greater Berlin Act of 1920, many of the city’s most prominent neighbourhoods – Steglitz, Schöneberg, or Charlottenburg to name but a few – were independent communities, and the council of each town would have had the authority to impose its own system of signage. In some places those original signs still survive, and in others the old-style signs have been restored to their pre-war glory.
Although the official typeface found in the ‘West’ signs accounts for probably seventy to eighty percent of the city’s street signage, the remaining twenty to thirty percent offers a remarkable vista onto the historical and geographical forces that formed the city which exists today. The modern city may aim for stylistic homogeneity but, as is so often the case, it is the inconsistencies that make a place fascinating.
The many faces of… is an occasional series on the Berlin Typography blog which seeks to examine how stylistic diversity may arise within standardised urban systems.
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