Architecture and Type: A Modern Marriage

Filed Under: Inspiration , Voice , typography

For a graphic designer who accepted the Modernist principle of the unity of the arts—that graphic design and typography share the same theoretical base as architecture, that they arise from the same mindset and occupy the same visual landscape—the new architecture of lower Manhattan stumps me. At Ground Zero, the 7 World Trade Center corporate Tower #1 by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) has nearly topped out and has secured its first tenant; Tower #2, just announced, will be by British architect Norman Foster, designer of the controversial Swiss Re London tower shaped like a steel pickle, and Santiago Calatrava's soaring white glass bird for the WTC Transportation Hub, is set to fly by 2009. What is comparable to all this development in graphic design and typography? Is there a unity of the arts in the post-Post-Modern era?

Early Modern theorists stressed the oneness of style: Le Corbusier said in 1923, “Style is a unity of principles animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind that has its own special character. Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style." Gropius went further in recognizing, "the common citizenship of all forms of creative work and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern world." Alvin Lustig, whose early death deprived Yale of a serious design theorist, hoped for "the kind of relationship that existed in earlier periods between objects—the great symbolic spark that jumped between a candle stick, a Gothic cathedral, or a tapestry." So, today, where is that spark? Is there any resemblance, or any "interdependence," among designers of buildings and designers of pages and letterforms? In his 1928 manifesto of the modern spirit in typography, The New Typography, Jan Tschichold named Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier as architects expressing the spirit of modernism. In this interesting work, he advised German printers to achieve the modern spirit by rejecting “old style” faces and using the nondescript sans serifs in the type case, such as Venus. But the modern impulse stirred in designers, and new sans serifs appeared. The types of Jakob Erbar (Erbar type 1926), especially Paul Renner (Futura type 1927) and Rudolf Koch (Kabel type 1927) became widely popular from their first appearance.

Graphic design repeats in miniature what architecture does monumentally. In my new book, Forms in Modernism; A Visual Set. The Unity of Typography, Architecture and the Design Arts, I pair similar approaches in the treatment of form by architects and designers. Early in the 20th century, the “stripped” Looshaus building in Vienna and the “stripped” sans serifs revealed a turn from ornament to “abbreviated” or “abstracted” bases—the bones of the letter. Further, Tschichold claimed asymmetry as the logical order of text resulting from its hierarchy and function. In posters and book design, sans serif type, photography, rules and bars replaced fleurons and ornaments, illustrations, borders and centered type. Bold and big, using all the page and its white space, this practice of asymmetrical composition became a key principle in modern graphic design, proselytized by the Bauhaus as well.

“Graphic design repeats in miniature what architecture does monumentally.”

In my book, I show that fashion and furniture move in the same spirit of a period on the personal scale. Such design is part of the visual landscape, or “visual set” of the early modern period. Madeleine Vionnet and Mies van der Rohe both rejected axial symmetry and centrality. Mies exhibited his now iconic Barcelona pavilion in 1929, the same year Vionnet showed her wedding dress. It revealed its construction in the metallic cord seams following the fabric around the body to gather in an asymmetric focus on the left hip. (See Fig. 1, Fig. 2) Vionnet didn't study Mies; she sent her assistants to the Louvre to draw Greek drapery. There's no causal connection, influence or even awareness of each other's work. (Even to fantasize about a meeting between them is alarming. One can only speculate that they might both have served the same rich clients.) But by 1929, both had discarded tradition in favor of a new spirit. And both used luxurious materials—Mies, marble and onyx; Vionnet, ivory silk panne velvet—allowing the intrinsic elegance of materials, their refinement and proportions, to work.

In American modernism, typography also followed architecture. The Empire State Building had been constructed in record time at the beginning of the 1930s. American Type Founders issued an elongated, condensed titling face called Empire, named after the building. Huxley Vertical type and Slimline type also appeared in the ’30s. Both elongated letterforms to the maximum, condensing them to narrow, anorexic stems—skyscraper types. The period exaggerated thinness and tallness, and models and stars showed how it looked on the human figure. (See Fig. 3, Fig. 4, Fig. 5). Tall buildings evolved and became New York's corporate style architecture: Helvetica type emerged as its counterpart in the 1950s. (See Fig. 5, Fig. 6) Skidmore, Owings and Merrill has designed much of the New York landscape since its iconic Lever House of 1951—Chase Manhattan Plaza, the green Citicorp building in Queens, Union Carbide headquarters, hospitals, many educational renovations and additions. There is also 101 Barclay Street (1983), a white building immediately to the north of 7 World Trade Center. It is identified by modest brass titling over the main entrance. Together, the two SOM buildings, 7 World Trade Center and 101 Barclay Street, occupy a massive stretch of glass. To their south will be Tower 2 by Foster and the WTC Hub of Calatrava. What will be their graphic counterparts?

We can recognize that new concerns have replaced striving for purity of form. Foster's London tower takes its shape from environmental goals: admitting natural light and fresh air, conserving energy. Its tapering form minimizes gusts of wind, often problematic around city skyscrapers (the original WTC plaza was non-navigable, if you remember). The aerodynamic form permits staggered light wells to open vistas between floors, as well as move fresh air upward and warm air outward.

Social concerns like housing, so central to early modern thinking, have become people concerns again, but more empathetically. Santiago Calatrava says of the wing like forms of his World Transportation Hub: "The building is built with steel, glass, and light. They will all be equal building materials—the light will arrive at the platform, and visitors will feel like they are arriving in a great place, a welcoming place." He showed he could do this in the 2004 Athens Olympic Stadium Complex. In contrast, Le Corbusier planned to screen tenants to admit those worthy of living in his Marseille apartment building.

The union of type and architecture does exist. Recently, the Cal Trans building in Los Angeles, designed by Thom Mayne, incorporated the building's address in a stunning projection of huge architectural numbers from the facade. (See Fig. 7) Thom Mayne's firm, Morphosis, won commissions to design the Cooper Union addition on Third Avenue as well as the Olympic Village in Queens.

“Social concerns like housing, so central to early modern thinking, have become people concerns again, but more empathetically.”

The tallest building in the world is being built in the Kingdom of Dubai. New museums, commercial and government buildings and condominiums come from Gehry, Gwathmey, Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and celebrated architects worldwide. It's hard to eep track. With type, new faces and new versions of old faces are available from many sources: Adobe, Emigre, Linotype, Monotype, Hoefler, Manfred, Markus, Tobias or Phil. Globalization leaves the neat concept of unity of style in shambles.

Or perhaps it has been transformed into something more complex, more profound than we now can see. We can't identify it because it is too close. Can someone see the common spark?

About the Author: Virginia Smith's book, Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set (Watson-Guptill) places typography in the theoretical context of other design of the Modern period, especially architecture, with examples from couture and furnishings. She is a Professor Emerita of Baruch College of CUNY and a practitioner and observer of graphic design and design history.