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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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