Little Relevance Issues: Type and Starchitects

Co-authored with Vicente Reyes, first published in Cuarto 1: Identity (2014)

Today, educational systems are extremely specialized. Besides improving and exploring in more detail the identity of professionals, they also create uncrossable boundaries between disciplines that, not so long ago, were closely related. This is the case of architecture and graphic design. Despite their common definition, “the implementation of human intentions in a morphological result through design”, the way architects use type is not considered a relevant issue among the collective itself.

Carlos Romo and Vicente Reyes showcase six examples on how star architects use or design typefaces. Without making any judgement, they make the breach clear between design and architecture professionals, highlighting the lack of intermediate professionals that connect both disciplines.

GGraphic Design is a discipline generally underrated between architects. It is seen as a commodity, rather than an real need. It is a common practice, in small offices, to delegate typographic tasks to interns, as those are considered the less compromising with the quality of the project.

The evolution of working systems during the 20th century, and the overcoming of professional boundaries due to technological development, are keys to understanding the gap between typography and architecture. Type work evolved from drawing headlines by hand, to the use of templates, dry transfers (Letraset), phototypesetters (Photo Typositor), etc. As techniques were simplified, options were multiplied, from a limited typeface catalogue (a sort of type curating) to the development and access to digital typefaces and word processors. The context for this facts occurs in the transition from modernist thinking (universal, inclusive and with a specific objectives to postmodern one (diverse, individual), as the digital revolution democratizes the access to technical tools. Nowadays, selecting a typeface is a much more complex task for an untrained professional that usually ends up choosing based on fads or authority principles.

[…]Rotis is a mannered expression of a graphic designer’s theories that sound good but simply do not work. Norman Foster prescribed Rotis for all his projects, regardless of their function. The architectural crowd followed quickly. The typeface has become a classic, but in a sad way: it shouts Architect! so loudly as to be embarrassing.

1. VIRGINA SMITH. Forms in Modernism: The Unity of Typography, Architecture and the Design Arts 1920s-1970s Amphoto Books — 2005

A good use of typography enhances the understanding of an architectural project, improves texts legibility and the hierarchy of information. It assigns a certain voice to its communication, to the firm and to the commercial approach of the office. Branding is the feature to which big architecture offices devote more resources. Brand identities are designed as a metaphor for the architectural practice of the office. On the contrary, in a modernist context, type could be considered as part of the project development, from hand lettering on blueprints, to the design of specific characters to emphasize the purpose of the building¹.

Today, the professional profile of the architect is in need of an update, in an attempt to leave its limited scope. It might be time to open a debate on uplifting architectural training, by considering all those peripheral areas that support the quality of architecture.

1. Bjarke Ingels Group

The font used by Bjarke Ingels Group falls under the category of Bitmap fonts, an alphabet formed from a matrix of pixels representing the image of each character. This kind of font begins to develop from the rise of the first computers which, limited in processor and memory capacity, could only make use of this format exclusively. With improved hardware, Bitmap fonts were quickly replaced by Vector fonts (mathematically constructed with bezier curves); however, Bitmap fonts are still used in digital systems and situations where the speed and simplicity of the loading text is more important than legibility or readability.

In BIG’s website ( we can see how the subjective characteristics of this font are exaggerated by its graphic approach. The exclusive use of RGB colours, the reticular system of organization, the buttons represented by square units, and the use of a Bitmap font, transport us directly to the origin of information technologies.

The typographic design is intended, in this case, to define the brand identity of the graphic design of “BIG” acronym. We can see this in their logo and some publications as a metaphor for a possible parametric quality of its architecture, or the supermodernity of their projects.

2. Zaha Hadid Architects

Zaha Hadid Sans is a Display category typeface developed by Greenspace studio in 2011. It has a postmodernist ductus (the path described by the writing tool when forming a letter), recognizable by the rounded angles that connect the horizontal and vertical strokes and by the small divider cuts that emulate a superposition of strokes.

This example highlights the contemporary relevance of branding, even darkening the importance of the product/service given. The new brand identity uses abstract shapes based on parametric design patterns that ZHA uses on their architecture. Those patterns are applied all over the brand’s communications.

Nevertheless, the shapes that inspire the new brand identity and Zaha Hadid Sans, can be likened to ZHA latest projects rather than to Zaha Hadid deconstructivist era. It might remark the difference on her way of producing architecture, heading to a more corporate way.

3. Foster+Partners

Akzidenz Grotesk is part of the first Sans Serif fonts for general use (both for headlines and text) in 1896. It arises in the context of the technical development for print media, the distinction between the work of a graphic designer and a printer, and the use of typography for commercial purposes (catalogues, magazines, advertisements, non-narrative information). This font, which subsequently influences the Helvetica, was widely used by Swiss designers, falling in excess by the following generations.

It is a font with fine, homogeneous characters, and good readability. In the case of Foster + Partners, Akzidenz enhances their commercial intentions, representing the masses and corporations with solidity.

It should be noted that the use of Akzidenz follows the renewal of the previous F+P’ corporate identity leaded by Rotis Sans, a font that is nowadays associated with its overuse by F+P and their followers in architecture, signage and branding design (for example, the Bilbao Metro).

4. Enric Miralles — Benedetta Tagliabue

The “drawn letterform” by Miralles, morphologically, relates directly to the way in which its author drew his plans. The drawing is accurate and geometrical, privileging its way of construction over its function. It is based on the lettering method used in Miralles’ office. It is a radical example of geometric design in typography. Its lack of contrast and optical corrections fit the shapes to the ductus.

It is a typeface with little legibility and poor readability. The aesthetics on its shapes are taken as a priority over any functionality. These features make a short reach typeface, as it is only used in the place it was designed and by Miralles’ followers. It is an alphabet shaped geometry that makes a sui generis typeface, which might be assigned to Display category, used best in logos or headlines. However, its use in Miralles’ works exceeds these limitations, using it in plans, signage, etc.

5. Mies van der Rohe

Allzweck / Planzkissen is a typeface based on the characters designed by Mies van der Rohe for some of his buildings, such as the Toronto Dominion Centre and Berlin’s Neue National Galerie.

This font takes place under the modernist principles promulgated by the Bauhaus, after the influence of constructivism and De Stijl. In an analytical and abstract manner (never empirical) pure geometric forms were proposed as the essential forms for all creations. The shapes of each character followed a universal and rational ideal, resulting in rigid and geometric ductus. Thereby, the characters found in the buildings of Mies go beyond the representation of an architect’s identity, they represent the expression of the ideals of his time.

However, the efforts made by modernist geometry to “purifiy” each character’s drawing, contrasts with the readability of the composed text. Therefore, the result of a purely analytical process skips the niceties that allow the distinction between each letterform, and its relation to each other for a fluent reading. Nevertheless, the use of this typeface in modern buildings, where its existence is limited to the signage, would not generate this problem.

6. Richard Neutra

Neutraface is a typeface based on the lettering of drawings by Richard Neutra. It was developed by Christian Schwartz, with the support of Dion Neutra, for the type foundry House Industries.

Lettering on Neutra’s drawings followed modernist principles on pure geometries. It is an open and unobtrusive typeface (it has no ornament) which, despite its geometric rationalism, has a human feel. When converting it to digital typography, it was possible to adjust its main features to a readable text typeface. It has become very popular and it is used in all kind of printed media. It is influenced by Futura, Nobel and Tempo.

Creative Director based in London. Published on Gestalten and Princeton Architectural Press. Currently exhibiting in the 2018 Venice Biennale.