When type designer John Kane begins his typography manual with the lapidary phrase “to design is to solve problems“, all architects nod complicitly.
There is a certain intuitive similarity between the creative processes of typographic design and architectural design. Similar ways of doing things when a typographer and an architect sit at their desk to design a fountain or to compose a floor plan. This may lead us to think that architecture and typography have points in common beyond the labels on the plans.
It is easy to understand, for example, a “structure” in the letter. Understand that a high box ‘A’ (capital letter) has two inclined and secant antlers at their highest point and a horizontal pole that crosses them. It is something comparable to the architectural structure, as it is what keeps the letter standing.
And then there’s the skin. Its appearance. What we see. His serifs, if he has them, his calligraphic print. Its auctions.
And the pillars in an H, the ligature in a hanging bridge, the window of an A, the apex in a skyscraper, the foundations of an M, the belly in an auditorium…
Some guys who created some “typos”
Although there is some truth in the fact that typography is born with the movable typefaces that Gutenberg creates for his printing, we can talk about the design of letters going back a few centuries. And the relationship between typography and more direct architecture takes us to the classical world, where buildings and monuments have inscriptions carved in stone. Sometimes typography is even an intrinsic part of architecture, as some architectural elements were created specifically to house an inscription.
We can talk about design here. A primitive design, if you like. The Trajana font, precedent of an endless number of later designs, comes from the inscription carved in the Roman column of the same name. A design practically linked to the nature of the material. What we would later know as serifs, an element common to all the so-called Roman fonts is nothing more than the evolution of a resource of the craftsmen who carved the letters in stone: a dry blow of chisel that marked the beginning and end of the strokes, which helped, among other things, not to break the stone.
There are curious things, such as that today we are able to recognize all the letters engraved in Roman monuments, but it costs us a barbarity to recognize some of the letters of, for example, the Gutenberg Bible, created many centuries closer to our time. That’s because our high box letters (capital letters) are based directly on Roman letters. Not so those of low box (small letters) that, although the difference between both takes care exclusively of orthographic aspects, in origin they were two completely different alphabets. Our lower case letters come from a Carolingian alphabet, but with a very eclectic origin.
Not to mention that nowadays writing an email in capital letters can mean a lack of respect to the recipient for the high tone of voice it represents.
Looking with architect’s glasses
All letters have a structure. Anyone can see it. But the attention to detail, the inquisitive gaze that an architect is supposed to have, can bring him closer to a letter in a new way. A structure he sees for the first time.
He can see amazing things. Things like a C is an unstable and unbalanced letter, while a G, although also unstable, has some balance due to a strong and representative counterweight.
Or that the N in a fountain with serif is an isostatic structure, since it has a serif in one of its antlers that embeds it in the ground, but not in the other, which rests on a single point.
Or that the ‘tail’ of the R works like a crutch, and solves the balance problem of the P.
Observations like this, make the architect leave his comfort zone and survive in a foreign country while speaking his own language. You just have to change the scale. Surround yourself in unknown ways. Losing your virginity for the second time.
There’s no formula that works, there’s form and there’s function
Creative processes are impossible to pautar. The number of variables involved, and the importance of arbitrariness and circumstantial elements, make it a utopia to “learn to be an architect/typographer in 5 steps”.
And that’s good, because it gives these two fields a certain exclusivity and, above all, a lot of versatility. In every moment, and especially in every place, an architectural project does not require the same elements, the same dimensions, the same finishes.
In the same way, the types and some of the current ones, designed with a lot of criteria, don’t answer the question. to a pattern, to a unitary modulation that distorts its proportions, but that each one responds to its own forms and needs.
In architecture not infrequently the function predominates over the form. The form ends up being residual, it is subordinated to each space fulfilling a function, it’s “what’s left”. In typography the form IS the function. A type is a symbol. It has to communicate. How? With its form, of course. It has to be recognizable.
Instructions for a perfect home
When I arrive I want it to be the house that receives me, that a small eave shelters me and creates a space of transition, in which not yet I’m in, but I’m not out anymore.
A main room, collected and cosy, with a good form factor . It is the area where to live, receive visitors and eat. The day zone. Its form has to be organic, that adapts to my needs, not imposed.
And if you need to break the rules and go down where the demure and obedient of your neighbors do not go down, do so with the elegance that has to characterize . By a sinuous staircase that already to cross it is an experience that I want to live every day, to want with all my forces to discover that lower floor, more private. To the shelter of the earth, where the environmental conditioning is more favorable and the house more efficient. The light enters from above, from an interstitial space between the two floors that functions, again, as a transition between two worlds.
And that’s it, that’s all I want, to live in a lowercase g.