In collecting the images for this blog, we have passed on foot through nearly all of Berlin’s localities … and in those travels we have encountered a tremendous diversity of urban spaces. There are, of course, the familiar Gründerzeit streets with their elegant commercial and residential buildings that, to many, constitute the essence of ‘real Berlin’; there are the restored areas around Gendarmenmarkt and Unter den Linden that still bear traces of enlightenment rationalism; and as we move further out we find the smaller villages, once autonomous, that have since been subsumed into the greater metropolis.
Typography, in these areas, is a constant and often comforting presence. It does not merely help the city to function, it is also an integral component of urban form. Yet as we move toward the periphery, we begin to encounter areas – some planned communities, others less-meticulous developments, but all constructed between the end of the first world war and the end of the twentieth century – in which type is conspicuous either by its overly circumscribed presence or by its almost-complete absence. In these areas where words grow suddenly scarce, one becomes even more acutely aware of the considerable role that typography plays in our experience of the city.
These areas, consisting mainly of large scale urban housing estates, are just as much a part of the city as the elegant middle-class Altbauten of the central localities … and yet, for the casual visitor, they can seem far removed from anything we might immediately identify as belonging to Berlin. While the numerous issues surrounding mass housing have been much discussed over the past fifty years, the textual component of these urban spaces – no less important than it is in more traditional urban settings – is too often ignored. The paragraphs that follow offer a few preliminary observations regarding the ways in which typography has been integrated (or not) into the planned residential areas that proliferated during the twentieth century.
Our goal here is not to pronounce judgement on the success or failure of twentieth-century planned housing; in many ways, the variety of approaches on display in Berlin is too great to allow for any definite conclusions. Rather, our central proposition is that the absence of urban typography – or, in some cases, its selective and excessively uniform presence – contributes to an area’s urban character just as much as any architectural style. In examining different locations around Berlin, we are offered a broad spectrum of approaches to typography in the urban spaces of the twentieth century … and from these examples we may also find clues regarding the role that typography must play as the city continues to evolve.
Histories of architecture tend to structure themselves around a succession of famous names, aesthetic movements and prestige projects; thus in the standard references we read of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, of Gropius and the Bauhaus, of the Prairie School and the International Style. A more honest, if less flattering history of twentieth-century architecture could – and perhaps should – be written by examining how architects and planners addressed the fundamental question of mass housing.
In some ways the cities of the twentieth century were defined by the single, pressing question of how to find shelter for a rapidly expanding population. During the previous century, the traditional order of manufacturing villages, market towns and administrative cities, prevalent in Western Europe for hundreds of years, was replaced by the industrial metropolis, and it fell to the twentieth century to deal with the consequences. The various solutions devised over the course of the next hundred years – ranging from broadly utopian to deeply cynical – have transformed the built environment of our world beyond recognition.
The story of housing in Berlin, although not without its particularities, is broadly representative of what was happening in the rest of Europe and, by the second half of the twentieth century, throughout the world. In the immediate aftermath of the industrial revolution, the population of the city started to grow at an unprecedented rate, leading to the rise of tenement-style buildings – known in Berlin as Mietskaserne or ‘rental barracks’ – where the quality of life was cramped, unsanitary and grim. By the end of the nineteenth century, a group of ideologically-minded architects and planners attempted to steer the city away from its toxic spiral of dense inner city living. The English planner Ebenezer Howard – whose influential volume Garden Cities of To-morrow first appeared in 1898 – found a willing disciple in Bruno Taut, a Berlin-based architect who put Howard’s ideas into practice in his own Gartenstadt Falkenberg of 1912.
After 1920, when the population of the newly enlarged city of Berlin had topped four million (a number which, even today, it has yet to surpass), the question of basic living requirements (Existenzminimum), became a matter of state concern. Guided by a belief in the social and physical benefits of outdoor space, a generation of architects – including Taut, Walter Gropius, Otto Salvisberg, and even a young Hans Scharoun – started to design and build large scale housing communities (Siedlungen) around the edges of Berlin. These early estates offered a mixture of low-rise blocks and terraced single-family dwellings set within ample green space; six of the earliest examples, including the Hufeisensiedlung in Britz and the Weiße Stadt in Reinickendorf, were named UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2008.
The golden age of the Siedlung did not last long. Many of the principal architects fled Germany shortly after 1933, and all construction projects were put on indefinite hold with the onset of war in 1939. Six years later, with large sections of Berlin destroyed by Allied bombs, the city faced the greatest housing crisis in its history; the response was a new style of modular housing based on large prefabricated slabs. Not only could these new buildings be assembled quickly, but they could extend far higher and cover a greater area than their pre-war counterparts. The age of the Plattenbau had arrived.
In the mid-1950s, a group of around forty architects – including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer – were asked to contribute modern housing solutions to the International Building Exhibition of 1957 (Internationale Bauaustellung, or simply Interbau) in which Berlin’s Hansaviertel in the northwestern corner of the Tiergarten was transformed into a possible vision of the city of the future, a mixture of high- and medium-rise housing in a park-like setting, supplemented by a shopping precinct, an art gallery and some churches. Although the Hansaviertel was (and remains) an intriguing and elegant statement of intent, its innovations paved the way for some of the century’s most problematic developments.
In the 1960s, the utopian ideals of living space which had presided quietly over the first wave of Siedlungen were gradually abandoned in the name of squeezing as many people as possible into the smallest amount of space; ceilings were lowered and room sizes reduced in exchange for large tracts of indefensible green space and limited access to the advantages of living in a capital city. In taking the idea of Existenzminimum to its most cynical conclusion, many of these buildings turned their back on fundamental aesthetic considerations: where the colour schemes and exterior proportions of the earliest Siedlungen had been of equal importance to the layout, the extensibility that gave Plattenbauten their function resulted in unchanging patterns formed by endlessly repeating shapes.
In Berlin during the post-war years, the building technologies that made Plattenbauten possible were applied to smaller scale infill projects where the city had been badly damaged, as well as larger projects such as the Gropiusstadt or Märkisches Viertel. The goal of these planned communities was to create an alternative mode of urban living based not on the patterns which had developed organically over the previous centuries, but based on a total rationalisation of fundamental human needs.
The social aims and ultimate success of these projects have been much debated over the past fifty years and, indeed, the results have been so varied as to make sweeping conclusions all but impossible. Although the Gropiusstadt developed a reputation in its early years for poor living conditions and high crime, the Märkisches Viertel has matured into a pleasant and not inelegant corner of the city. Whether or not one finds these areas preferable to the inner city areas they were initially intended to supersede, one cannot deny that large areas of twentieth-century housing have become an essential aspect of Berlin’s urban character.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, urban typography was identified most strongly with advertising … and advertising was everywhere. Between the newly illuminated signs that shone out from Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz, the city’s hubs of nightlife, and the painted signs on glass and brick that covered the surfaces of major shopping streets, Berlin was alive with text. For the planners of the earliest Siedlungen, the removal of ‘urban clutter’ – specifically advertising – in favour of the landscaped illusion of nature would undoubtedly have been a key component of the social ideology.
The process of planning of a community from the ground up meant that rationality could be exercised over every aspect of the final product. In the earliest Siedlungen, perhaps most notably the Hufeisensiedlung and Onkel Tom’s Hütte, harmonious colour schemes were imposed across the entire development. (These palettes, the work of chief architect Bruno Taut, are still in force today). We also find that the presence of type has been heavily restricted, and what type there is conforms to a fairly strict set of guidelines.
The type that we find today is, of course, not what would have existed when the Siedlungen were first constructed; we know from historical photographs, that the textual presence in these communities has undergone considerable stylistic changes in the past eighty years, and in that time it has experienced periods of greater freedom and tighter restriction. But what exists – and what doesn’t exist – in the present day gives us some insight into the intent of the original design.
The shops at the main approach to Weiße Stadt – an Apotheke, a dry cleaners and what appears to be an electronics repair shop – are distinguished by an identical typeface that captures the austerity of the setting more than the function of the individual shops.
A small parade of shops around the centre of the Siedlung suggests that the typography was once allowed to reflect the prevalent trends of the city – one can still see traces of curved neon burned onto the surfaces above the shopfronts – but these signs have all disappeared. What remains in the White City is a uniformity that verges on oppressive.
The Hufeisensiedlung, which has a small cluster of shops at the base of the horseshoe and a few others scattered around the area, offers a similar picture. The text above the pub, the Apotheke and the butcher shop may be new, but it all conforms to a restrictive set of rules; in this highly controlled environment, there is simply no room for anything else.
The ability to regulate the typographic content of a place would undoubtedly have appealed to architects and planners; even today, any designer who has managed a corporate identity will have some sympathy with the idea. Berlin’s Siedlungen were, after all, a kind of brand; and consistency, as we know, is one of the keys to developing a strong visual presence. Yet when we try to place this fundamental principle of brand management in the service of a living urban space, problems start to arise.
The central problem is that, for the users of this urban environment, typographic consistency immediately strikes one as false and somehow anti-urban. For one thing, it robs commercial typography of the visual clues on which we rely to make sense of the city. We can identify a butcher shop in part because it says ‘Fleischerei’, but also because of the distinctive red that appears on butcher shop signs throughout the city; we know the flower shops from their elegant green cursive. In any sign, only part of the meaning comes from the word itself, and when we are presented with a familiar word in an unfamiliar setting, we notice immediately that something is amiss.
In the case of the Siedlungen, the greater sin of consistency is that is presents the viewer with an obvious artificiality, suggesting a lack of organic development. At best it comes across as charmingly fake. At worst we are confronted with the idea of an unseen individual – or, worse, a committee – dictating the pattern of our lives. A city works best for its users when they remain completely unaware of the hand that fashioned it. We don’t look at the complex matrix of rooftops, antennas and powerlines and assume the existence of a master craftsman; we want the complexities of the city to remain somewhat unknowable. As soon as we become aware of a creative force, the illusion is shattered.
Attempts to control the visual qualities of typography in the early Siedlungen were not, perhaps, as damaging as the subsequent desire to reduce the presence of text to almost nothing. Many of the city’s post-war developments offer novel architectural solutions to perceived problems of urbanism: the High-Deck Siedlung in Neukölln is something of a treatise on how to separate vehicular traffic from pedestrian space, and the Schlange in Steglitz demonstrates that you can actually build a block of flats over a motorway if you really want to; other developments are less ostentatious, offering one or two basic building designs replicated as many times as the land-area will allow. Most of them are united by a highly minimal approach to typography.
The most obvious piece of text usually belongs to the name of the development, the building society that built it, or some combination of the two. This appears most frequently on the side of one of the buildings, often painted but sometimes displayed in letters of metal or plastic.
Beyond this, text is largely absent. If there is a shopping precinct included in the development, it is usually a good place to start, as it is virtually impossible to identify shops without the presence of at least some text. Otherwise, one will occasionally find monuments in strategic locations which may feature some words about the dates of construction and the people involved. But for the most part, text is limited to the purely practical function of marking the address.
Addresses are presented in many forms: one finds standalone lightboxes on the street, as well as fake lightboxes – essentially a fluorescent light with some black sticky letters – attached to the sides of buildings. In most cases, the addresses appear in the most conspicuously utilitarian typeface possible. If we are lucky we get a street name; sometimes we are given little more than a series of numbers.
Walking past endless identical buildings identified only by number leaves one with an odd impression; and it seems possible that the sensation, which we may describe as a kind of detachment from place, comes less from the lack of architectural differentiation than from the absence of text. If it is text – and specifically the presence of diverse typographical styles – that defines our experience of an urban space, if follows that the absence of that defining factor will result in a fundamentally different experience. As city dwellers, we are accustomed to look for text in our surroundings, and the odd sensation of these places is the result of our not being able to find it.
The implication from these areas is that any text, beyond the most purely functional, has no place within residential space. This law, of course, applies throughout the city: one will also notice a reduction of text in the more purely residential sections of Berlin’s older neighbourhoods, but the gradation between areas of higher and lower textual density is more subtle. In the large scale residential developments, where residential and commercial spaces have been grouped according to an entirely different governing principle, there is simply no reason for text to be there – indeed, there is barely any space for it – and so it is excluded.
It is difficult to determine if this exclusion is the result of an ideological programme on the part of the building association – as it may have been in some of the earlier Siedlungen – or merely an oversight. One rarely gets the sense that the absence of words is intentional. And yet, the planning principles behind many of the post-war developments have created a series of urban spaces in which it is almost impossible for text of any description to flourish.
Of the large-scale post-war developments in Berlin, the Märkisches Viertel in Reinickendorf is perhaps the most pleasant. Its arrangement of medium-rise buildings within a series of pleasingly landscaped spaces prevents the scale of the place from being overwhelming; it is eminently walkable, yet it has not gone out of its way to isolate vehicular and pedestrian traffic; and the fact that the residential areas surround a fairly large shopping and cultural precinct offers at least a thematic nod to the traditional town structure. It is also well-maintained; the concrete is not weather-beaten, the paint isn’t peeling, and the colour schemes have been updated since the late-sixties / early-seventies when the area was built.
There is, perhaps, one further factor that contributes to the appeal of the Märkisches Viertel: it is surprisingly rich in typographic diversity.
The Märkisches Viertel has its own wayfinding system: frequent posts with arrows and walking times ensure that one never feels as though they are walking through a maze of undifferentiated Plattenbauten. The wayfinding system is consistent and is able to impart the idea of a strongly-defined urban area, but it manages not to fall into the trap of seeming overly controlled. Most importantly it is only one of many typographic approaches on display.
In the residential blocks themselves, we find far more than the usual discreet light-boxes. Addresses have been displayed in a number of ways, some large and loud, others more subtle; not only do the approaches differ from building to building, but even the same building will announce itself in different ways. Some of the styles look somewhat dated, while others look more up-to-the-moment but – and this is crucial – there is a vague sense of organic development in the co-existence of the various styles. For all the internal consistencies, we are not left with the impression of an area-wide attempt to make everything conform to a particular standard. Rather, the Märkisches Viertel splits the difference between the ungoverned abandoned of the older city and the oppressive rigidity of the early Siedlungen.
We began this investigation by suggesting that the central problem of the twentieth century was the question of how to find shelter for an expanding population; yet that century was unable to offer a definitive answer, and it now falls to us in the twenty-first century to contain the possible chaos arising from the evolution and expansion of the modern city. We have (one hopes) learned many things from the experiments of the post-war decades: the most important lesson is perhaps the idea that the patterns of human life cannot be dictated by idealistic urban plans.
The less-obvious lesson is that typography is an essential element of a successful urban space, and that the presence of text plays a far greater role in our perceptual experience of the city than we might have previously imagined. By imparting an unmistakable sense of place to the venue of our lives, it defines our very perception of what it means to be in a particular city. We may take it for granted in our daily existence, but as soon as it disappears from our urban surroundings we become immediately aware of its absence. As we continue to develop new approaches to creating urban spaces, it will be important to give equal consideration to the ways in which text can be allowed to flourish in the cities of our future.
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