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.
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.
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.