Type on the Ground

It’s true: we spend a lot of time looking up. Up is, for the most part, where one finds the street signs, the ostentatious displays of cursive neon, and the elegant stone inscriptions that bring textual life to the city. But we have learned in our travels that it is equally important to keep an eye on the ground.

Every major city has some text embedded in its pavements – often in the form of ironwork (see the gallery at the end of this post) or concrete stamps – but there is one specific type of ground text unique to Berlin.


A Berlin Wall indicator, spotted on the border of Rudow and Altglienicke.

A series of plaques mark out the former route of the Berlin Wall which, between 1961 and 1989, divided the city into its autonomous Eastern and Western sections. In the central neighbourhoods of Mitte and Kreuzberg, the empty spaces where the wall once stood have been mostly filled in to create the illusion of a single continuous city, but reminders of this episode in Berlin’s not-so-distant past are there for anyone willing to find them.

Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), although not unique to Berlin, are another prominent textual feature of the city’s pavements. Each of these brass paving stones are inscribed with the name of a victim of persecution in the time of National Socialism (1933–45), and installed outside the building where that person once lived. Stolpersteine can be spotted on most of Berlin’s streets, and once you start to notice them they are not easily ignored.

Ground text of a different sort can be found in Schöneberg: along Landshuter Straße in the Bayerisches Viertel, the name and coat of arms of the street’s namesake – the Bavarian town of Landshut – is commemorated in mosaic form. A similar mosaic can be found at the very top of Kärntener Straße, named for the Austrian state of Kärnten.


Landshut mosaic on Landshuter Straße.

The cobbled pavement outside the Konzerthaus in the Gendarmenmarkt, on the other hand, celebrates Berlin itself with an assortment of quotes from some of the city’s most famous residents.


A quote from the former chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin.

Yet the vast majority of ground text is found on the iron grates, the manhole covers and the utility plates which, despite their great number, tend to go largely unnoticed. If the sides and façades of buildings provide a canvas for the city’s ornamental exclamations, ground level is where we find urban text at its most functional.


A manhole cover, made in Güsten in 1899, and spotted in Reinickendorf in 2016.

Here we read the recurring names of Passavant and Buderus, and the familiar initials of the Berliner Wasserbetriebe (BWB); here we also find the names and locations of ironworks companies past and present. These words may not have been designed to be read in the same way as an Apotheke or flower shop sign, but to urban historians and typography enthusiasts their utilitarian elegance offers no less pleasure.

The following assortment of ironwork text was inspired directly by the excellent collection of manhole covers at the Culture+Typography blog, which is well worth a few moments of your time. Their examples, drawn primarily from the United States, illustrate a very different, often more flamboyant typographic approach than the highly functional styles favoured in Berlin; yet both collections offer ample evidence of the rewards awaiting anyone willing to look down.


Passavant (a water management company) is probably the most common name on the pavements of Berlin.


BEWAG is short for Berliner Städtische Elektrizitätswerke Aktiengesellschaft; they look after the electricity.


Eisenhammer Dresden produce manhole covers.


Two species of Gas access plate.


A hydrant access plate from Berliner Wasserwerke.


Guss und Armaturwerk of Kaiserslautern is now known as ACO Guss. Note the delightful ‘AWK’ on the top left.


An increasingly rare example of an East German manhole cover.

If you don’t already, you should follow us at @Berlin_Type on Twitter, for your daily dose of typographic goodness from Berlin


5 thoughts on “Type on the Ground

  1. Wow, what to do? Looking up and walking was possible. Looking down on the other hand is a whole new ballgame. Let us give it a try.
    Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t know why exactly, but it seems to have been quite standard. Lots of East German LPs also have ‘Made in GDR’ written in English, even though everything else is in German. Must look into that…


  2. “Made in Germany” was originally a designation forced on German goods to be sold for export in England by a law passed in the 1880s. The British intended this to protect their markets against cheap, lower quality goods. Over time it became a mark of quality; however, after WWII there were complaints from the W. German side that inferior E. German export goods were labeled “made in Germany” that led to a lawsuit. Although the BGH decided that the label “made in Germany” was not deceptive for GDR goods, the label “Made in GDR” became prevalent afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

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