Thursday, January 27, 2011

By George, I may or may not have it.

In the search for a thesis topic, I might have finally come up with something while trying to fall asleep last night. In my sleepy haze it might have seemed way more brilliant than it actually is, but I like it at the moment, so I'm going to run with it.

Everything I've done and seen so far has made me ask a lot of questions. This is good. Now, many things I've come across are pushing me to ask more questions about signage (blogger is telling me signage is not a word; it is definitely a word) in Berlin. After watching a few Spiekermann interviews and reading some of his stuff, I've learned that he is the designer of the typeface and look of Deutsche Bahn (except the red DB logo, which I believe was designed by Weidemann). I also observed that the typeface of street signs in Berlin is an interesting mix of modern and old-fashioned elements; it is a sans serif type, yet uses versions of the old Esszet and z. Here are some examples:

Another observation I have is that the street names in Berlin have changed a LOT. Between the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the occupation, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, DDR, BRD, reunification, and the continuing struggle for a solid national and city identity, place names in Berlin have been in an almost constant state of flux throughout history. So, the signs must have changed!

So, who has designed all of these different signs? Where have those signs gone? Do people care when the names change? Do they care when the signs change? If they don't care, do they even notice? Who decided all the names? Who decided on the typeface? How does the print through which geographic orientation is communicated affect the experience of orientation and identification with a given place?

Most importantly: a street or Platz name means nothing if it's not on a sign. Period. The design of the sign matters. Erik Spiekermann designed the current Bahn signs in the subway, but what else has happened in to the graphic design of signs in the history of Berlin's place-name-process?? I am making this question my mission for my last two weeks (along with continued museum visits...).

I also may or may not decide to connect this with Paris, which I know nothing about, but also has a super interesting history that I'm sure connects to street names and signs. This is something for another day, though.

So, today I went to the Märkisches Museum, the museum for Berlin history. Museums are generally only good for extremely introductory info, but I wanted to see what they had in the way of pictures of street corners, reproductions of old maps, and information on the history of different neighborhoods. It was a good start. There were tidbits about the development of the Kurfürstendamm, Wilhemstrasse, etc. I also found out the details about Stalin Allee: part of Frankfurter Allee was renamed Stalin Allee in 1949, then in 1961 renamed again, part Frankfurter Allee and part Karl-Marx-Allee. It's still that way now.

After the museum, I decided to go back to the Buchstabenmuseum to take some pictures to post. I have a lot, but here are the ones of the HAUP from the old Ostbahnhof and the RUNDFUNK from the DDR radio, along with a couple others that I forgot to identify but demonstrate the awesomeness of the museum:

This stuff also all relates to my initial questions--somebody clearly cares about saving letters, but how about street signs with historical names and typefaces?

Then I scurried back to my apartment to start looking around the internet for stuff on the graphic design of street signs. I'm really bad at using the search engines on German libraries, but I did manage to find a book that is essentially a Lexikon of street names in Berlin, with a volume for each neighborhood. It was published in the mid-nineties, presumably to ease any place-name-freakout/identity crisis Berlin probably went through during that period. Who knows if it worked, but it briefly explains the names of streets since the beginning of Berlin. Some haven't changed since the 17th century, and others seem to have changed since the book was published in 1995. I want to go beyond what the names have been to what the signs looked like, but this is a great resource.

I also found an interesting essay about the politics of cartography called "Kartographie und Politik: Anmerkungen zum Stadtplan >>Berlin - Hauptstadt der DDR<<" Definitely interesting stuff. Plus, the footnotes pointed me to the Landesarchiv Berlin, where I should be able to look at a whole archive of maps. Maps are good, but still don't get me to where the signs went. I'm a little unsure of where to go on this one, but I found a news article about a German typographer who has taken an interest in/inspiration from old street signs in Berlin. Verena Gerlach lives in Berlin, and I'm going to try to get an interview with her. She seems to know her stuff when it comes to signage in Berlin. I'm still contemplating trying to interview Spiekermann. He's pretty high profile, but hey, it can't hurt to ask.

Tomorrow I am going on a bicycle adventure to Potsdam with some friends of Dave Oxnard's, so I probably won't make any progress on the research. The Buchstabenmuseum has an opening for a new exhibit in the evening, though, so I should have some pictures from both that and the Fahrradtour. Happy Weekend!


  1. I'm going to ask Ramsey to send you a photo from Mauer Park he took this summer, hopefully he still has it somewhere on his computer. It will hopefully help you think about text, and your investigation of street signs.

    Another street sign wrinkle: check out the sign for, for example, Hanna-Arendt-Straße (Mitte). Why is that sign different? And how could one argue that is it HUGELY problematic (typically so?) and paradigmatic of lingering problems in the present? EVERYTHING about that sign is worthy of a lengthy discussion.

    Lastly, a quote from Alexander Kluge's "Die Lücke, die der Teufel läßt" (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003):

    -Dieses Wachs aber schmolz beim Höhenflug des Ikarus?
    -Es geht nicht um einen Höhenflug. Es geht um eine Prägung.
    -Wie bei einer Münze? Wie bei einem Charakter?
    -Ich glaube, es ist eine Schrift gemeint. (662-663)

    I'll scan the pages for you. And probably remember to send you that Mauer Park stuff.

  2. Hello, my name is Joana Nogueira, I'm an MA student in Portugal. I'm developing my final MA project on street names plaques.

    I agree with what you say in your blog, but I'm most concerned with how choices of new typefaces are made. You talk about reading articles and interviews of Erik Spiekermann, and I ask if you could send the link to me. It is important in terms of research for my project. Also, being from Portugal is hard to get in a plane and photograph examples of street name plaques, I wonder if you could send me some examples, telling me dates and places where they were taken, I need to respect the authorship of the photos.

    Thank you.

    Best regards,
    Joana Nogueira.