Stone Letters in Berlin, Part One

Berlin is undoubtedly a city of magnificent neon … but neon is far from the only thing on offer. Long before it had occurred to anyone to electrify tubes full of noble gas, the stone-cutters were hard at work bringing their own distinctive beauty to the city. Our wealth of illuminated signs may be more immediately apparent to the casual flâneur, but anyone who really wants to experience the astonishing breadth of typographic invention on display in Berlin must also look out for what is written in stone.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways of fashioning letters from stone: one may simply incise the letters onto a flattened surface; or, if they are so inclined, they can also cut away everything which isn’t part of the letter. The former approach dominated the classical world – indeed, the stone-cut capitals of ancient Rome are as essential an ingredient of modern typography as the monastic pen-strokes of the Medieval period – and is still on prominent display in our cemeteries. However it is the latter technique of relief carving which became more widespread in Berlin over the past two centuries.

StoneRelief-14

Relief lettering. The text is a line from Goethe’s Faust Part Two; the inset umlaut in möcht is a thing of beauty.

Although their craft is rooted in ancient practices, the stone-cutters of Berlin were no mere traditionalists. Their work reflected larger trends in nineteenth- and twentieth-century typography and, when one walks through the city today, one can find the organic forms of Jugendstil, the inventive geometry of Art Deco and, of course, the imposing masses of blackletter alongside more conventional examples of serifed Roman types.

Neon tubes break easily, bronze and other metals can be melted down and reused, and modern plastic is inexpensive enough that it can be removed easily at the whim of fashion. It takes considerably more effort to get rid of stone. Yet it is precisely this durability and longevity which make stone letters so valuable for the typophile: because buildings with stone decoration were designed with permanence in mind, they have been able to preserve typographic styles and approaches which might have otherwise disappeared from the urban landscape.

But even for the casual wanderer, Berlin’s stone letters are a source of near constant delight, their formal beauty invariably balanced by unexpected flourishes of invention. The images presented here represent only a small selection of the stylistic diversity to be found on the city’s innumerable stone surfaces.

StoneRelief-1-2

A list of notable cities in Germany, on display in the Tiergarten.

StoneRelief-5

The strikingly modern condensed face works surprisingly well in its neo-classical surroundings. Note the wonderful umlaut in Künste.

StoneRelief-9

Relief lettering worked just as well for blackletter.

StoneRelief-17

Friendly advice from the golden age of building decoration.

StoneRelief-10

The signature of the architects occupies a small corner of the Rathaus Charlottenburg.

StoneRelief-4

Even some residential buildings in Berlin commemorate their architects.

StoneRelief-21

Kaiser Wilhelm II: he didn’t build this, but his name gets pride of place nonetheless. The bar of the H in Wilhelm is especially lovely.

StoneRelief-12

Stone lettering gets psychedelic.

StoneRelief-8

Relief lettering as decoration. Includes almost the whole alphabet, but not quite.

The second part of this post, dealing specifically with incised lettering, will appear in a few weeks.

In the meantime, if you don’t already, you should follow us at @Berlin_Type on Twitter, for your daily dose of typographic goodness from Berlin.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Stone Letters in Berlin, Part One

  1. What a fantastic post! Every day hundreds, if not more, of people pass these things of beauty and do not notice them. What a shame!
    Thank you for making these letters visible for all. Keep up the great work.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s