Large metropolises have some common tones, textures and feelings whether they are New York, London, Shanghai, or Paris. However, each is a product of its own geography, socio-political history and of the culture from which it emerged brick by brick, by tarmacked road, by work of art, by happening, by government, individual and collective of people.
Culture, incidentally, is a complex word, linked to place but also practices. I enjoy Clifford Geertz’ description of the relationship between humans and culture: “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”
Cities could be understood as supporting structures for webs of significance or be seen as webs themselves; holding and facilitating material objects, transient moments and histories. They inevitably share commonalities with other large concreted, concentrated areas of human dwellings, but each has properties and feelings exclusively its own.
I have just returned from the German capital, Berlin. A city I have been to several times but it still intrigues me. What defines and distinguishes it? What does it mean to live here? How much does the language barrier here prevent me from knowing? Without fully understanding its significance and its relation to these questions until I got inside, this week I visited the Buchstabenmuseum (Museum of Letters) for the first time at its current location in an old supermarket between Mitte and Friedrichshain.
What the Buchstabenmuseum demonstrates is that ‘language’ isn’t only in the nature and selection of words and use of grammar, but in the way that words and even individual letters are presented. For in Berlin, typography, signage and graphic design are not only used distinctively they are hugely important. The Museum of Letters collects, documents and preserves letters and whole words from signs and architecture. Some efforts are made to re-contextualise the letters, elsewhere they sit within their own dioramas, or are de-constructed to reveal their manufacture.
The prominence of lettering within the architecture of the city is in no small part due to the Bauhaus school, established in 1919 by Walter Gropius in the German city of Weimar. Bauhaus translates as ‘construction house’ or ‘school of building’ – the full impact of the school is explored in another Berlin venue, the Bauhaus Archiv. Typeforms, product design and architecture were all overhauled by the school’s teachings and the legacy of what we now interpret as the modernist style can be seen across the post-war German urban landscape.
In the Buchstabenmuseum modernism’s sans serif style is everywhere. But also present is lettering influenced or directly using the ‘Fraktur’ font. Originating in Rome in the 15th century, it became popular in the German speaking and influenced regions, who persisted in using it even when the conventional font for books and newspapers changed elsewhere in Europe. Its popularity persisted until the early 20th century – and it was championed by the Nazi regime (the cover of Mein Kampf uses a hand drawn version). Partly it was a rejection of the associations of the past, including Fraktur-stype scripts, that was enthusiastically taken up by the teachers and students of the Bauhaus. We see its legacy today though in situations such as Oktoberfest event marketing.
Back in the museum, an E is presented as though on a stage, spotlit with theatrical curtains behind. The effect is David Lynch meets Sesame Street. We are given torches to read the captions as the neon signs are best displayed in the half dark. It is an immersive experience as well as an educational one with a pleasing balance between quirky displays, interpretative explanations and just letting the letters speak for themselves on open display in rows and stacks which reveal their weight, variety, proliferation, signs of use and even deterioration.
The letters require space, (re)interpretation and careful management – as with any collection – and the museum’s impending closure and campaign to find a new home for the letters is sad but understandable. The website suggests that the museum wants to acquire more items, however; so, though nomadic, the museum is not likely to completely disappear any time soon. Although not as well known or publicised as other venues such as the Bauhaus Archiv or the Deutsches Historisches Museum, this collection – a web of significance drawn from the fabric of the city itself – is arguably as important in telling Berlin’s story, and a good starting point in the process of understanding the city.
For more information: http://www.buchstabenmuseum.de/