Heller and Anderson’s exploration of “the alphabet of everyday things” goes beyond finding the alphabet in everyday things (a form of pareidolia or “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern” — Merriam-Webster). Many (most?) of their examples involve making the alphabet from everyday things. Some, not so everyday like this one by Ceol Ryder.
Photo of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Ceol Ryder.
Not all are as intricate or as long in the making as the alphabetic architectural efforts of Johann David Steingruber or Takenobu Igarashi, who are not mentioned. Still, the book serves as a useful mixed spice of images with which to season any appreciation of the interaction of the imagination with the alphabet.
Architectural alphabet (1773/1972) Johann David Steingruber Casebound, sewn, headbands. H356 x W260 mm, 112 pages, including 33 facsimile prints. Published by Merrion Press, London. Edition of 425, of which this is #9. Acquired from Chevin Books, 24 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Several professional and academic architects and designers as well as academics from other disciplines have delved into the intersection of the alphabet and architecture. A few of them have also noted the intersection’s expansion to include artist books and fine press works. Since Johann David Steingruber’s effort in the 18th century, it has become quite a busy intersection.
Originally published in installments at Steingruber’s own expense, the volume opens with its gloriously long title in an “arch of contents”, the columns inscribed with thumbnail images of the letter buildings to come. Although the title page lists 1773 as the publication date, the last installment came in March 1774. In his lifetime, Steingruber published three other works, illustrated and described toward the end of this facsimile, but Architectonisches Alphabeth became his most famous — “postcard” famous.
Architectonisches Alphabeth: bestehend aus dreyßig Rissen wovon Jeder Buchstab nach seiner kenntlichen Anlage auf eine ansehnliche und geräumige Fürstliche Wohnung, dann auf alle Religionen, Schloß-Capellen und ein Buchstab gänzlich zu einen Closter, übrigens aber der mehreste Theil nach teutscher Landes-Art mit Einheiz-Stätte auf Oefen und nur theils mit Camins eingerichtet, wobey auch Nach den mehrest irregulairen Grund-Anlagen vielerley Arten der Haupt- und Neben-Stiegen vorgefallen, dergleichen sonsten in Architectonischen Rissen nicht gefunden werden, zu welchen auch Die Façaden mit merklich abwechslender Architectur aufgezogen sind.
Steingruber dedicated his Architectural Alphabet to Christian Friedrich Carl Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, and his first wife Frederica Carolina, not to be confused with the paying dedicatee of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. By a baroque coincidence, however, the first Brandenburg concertos, the ones composed by Giuseppe Torelli and influencing Bach, were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, then George Friedrich II, Alexander’s great-uncle who employed Torelli as court composer. Like Torelli, Steingruber too had to be satisfied with his payment as an appointee — court and public surveyor, and later principal architect of the board of works — even though he went to the trouble of making sure that his employers’ monograms and their associated buildings appeared in the span above the roman arch.
Steingruber seemed unaware of other building designs from alphabetical foundations. This facsimile’s editor gently and genially fills in the missing context. John Thorpe (1565–1655?), an English architect, drew up a property based on his initials. Thomas Gobert (1625-90), a French architect, produced Traitté d’Architecture dedié à Louis XIV, a manuscript whose building plans spelled out “LOVIS LE GRAND”. Anton Glonner (1723–1801) designed a Jesuit church and college around the monogram “IHS”.
There was not much chance of these letter-shaped edifices’ being built. Nevertheless, Steingruber adds matter-of-fact descriptions to his elevations and plans, calling out heating, kitchen, toilet and servants’ arrangements as if conferring with a prospective client ready to commission one of these typographic palaces. Who would not want a serif with a view? Or conduct guests on a tour of the bowl, capline, crossbar, stem, stroke and tail of the property?
The main text appears to be set in Van Dijck (before Robin Nicholas’ revision between 1982 and 1989) and printed on a cream laid paper. The special earmarks of Van Dijck — the sloped apex of the A, the stepped center strokes of the W, the non-lining numerals and especially the downward stroke at the top of the 5 , the tilted lower bowl of the g, etc., identifiable in Morison’s A Tally of Types and Rookledge’s Classic International Type Finder — all seem to be present.
The laid paper is not only tactilely pleasant, it visually supports the clarity of the facsimile prints. Their sharpness outdoes what is achieved even with the zoom function applied to the freely available digital version, which can be seen in the interactive comparison below.
Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel edition (1995)
Architectonisches Alphabeth (1773/1995) Johann David Steingruber Facsimile edition prepared by Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel. H356 x W260 mm, 80 pages. Acquired from Antiquariat Terrahe & Oswald, 14 March 2021.
In smaller dimensions, this edition does not present the prints in their full size. Partially making up for the deficit is the Munken Pure paper’s brightness, against which the Garamond Berthold typeface and photolithography work well. Also, the book includes French, German and English text as well as illustrations that broaden the context to the present. Alongside Steingruber’s elevations and plans, Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel have included several birds-eye views of inventive roofing of 20th-century architectural models inspired by Steingruber’s plans.
Christian Friedrich Carl Alexander’s monogram buildings reduced alongside reductions of Steingruber’s original foreword and explanations of Federica Carolina’s and Alexander’s buildings.
Not satisfied with some of his efforts, Steingruber offered second options; here, for the letter A, and later, for the letters M, Q, R and X.
Verso: Paula Barreiro’s roofing design for Steingruber’s letter B.
Verso: Helge Huber’s and Alexandra Krull’s roofing designs for Steingruber’s letter C.
In another instance of positioning Steingruber’s book in the history of alphabetic architecture (or architectural alphabets), the editors include a complete set of small reproductions of Thomas Gobert’s designs and elevations spelling out “LOVIS LE GRAND” from his manuscript mentioned above. Although created a century before, his drawings do not seem as stylistically distant from Steingruber’s as those of the 20th-century rooftop drafts do. Driving home their point that “the design of alphabetical buildings must not be based slavishly on a Baroque roman type or a classicist roman version”, the editors conclude by drawing attention to Takenobu Igarashi‘s 20th-century sculptural celebrations of the alphabet in aluminum, concrete, wood, chrome and gold.
Photo: Mike Sullivan, “Igarashi Alphabets“, Typetoken, 25 November 2013. Accessed 26 March 2021. Displayed with permission of the reviewer.
In print and online as well, new original and secondary works have continued to busy the intersection of the alphabet, architecture and artist books. Richard Niessen’s The Palace of Typographic Masonry (2018) and Sergio Polano’s “Architectural Abecedari” (2019) are two recent examples. And, as if to confirm the busying of the intersection, we have Takenobu Igarashi: A to Z (2020) in print and making up for the scarcity of Igarashi Alphabets (1987).
In his extended essay on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard, Eric Zboya celebrates Ji Lee’s 3D typeface by rendering the entire poem in that face. The discovery of that essay led to the acquisition of Zboya’s artist book, which led to the acquisition of Ji Lee’s scarce volume Univers Revolved: A Three-Dimensional Alphabet (2004). Lee’s book resonates with several other works in the Books On Books Collection. Compare it, for example, with Johann David Steingruber’s alphabet book Architectonisches Alphabeth (1773/1973), Paul Noble’s alphabet book Nobson Newtown (1998) and Sammy Engramer’s three-dimensional rendition of Mallarmé’s poem.
This double-page spread displays the manipulation of the alphabet’s first four letters around their axes at two different angles to render their 3D shapes.
These two double-page spreads show the complete alphabet and punctuation marks at two different angles, which provide a key with which to begin reading text spelled out in the book.
Lee teases his reader by composing sentences with different sized letters. “Reading is Fun!” is one of the easier to decipher.
The Palace of Typographic Masonry (2018) Richard Niessen Paperback, perfect bound. H300 x W215 mm, 348 pages. Acquired from Wordery, 29 March 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Richard Niessen.
Website, perforated poster, exhibition and paperback, The Palace of Typographic Masonry occupies its place in the Books On Books Collection unlike any other work. The book itself is a shape shifter. Its size competes with those of museum catalogues. In fact, the Palace of Typographic Masonry is like a museum, so much so that it requires a tour guide, which is one shape the book takes. With its nine departments (Sign, Symbol, Ornament, Construction, Poetics, Play, Order, Craft and Practice), it is like a working museum of graphic design, and Dirk van Weelden, our tour guide, often hands us off to departmental “staff” for a lecture or overheard interview.
Given the guided-tour premise, the page layouts strangely, or perhaps appropriately, disorient. On almost every page, at almost every turn, we are rubbernecking and twisting to follow text that appears in a typewriter font on sheets and cards that seemingly have been stuck to a black surface with masking tape, photographed and then printed. Some of the text-bearing cards wrap from the recto page to the verso, leading the reader to think that perhaps the pages are on Chinese fold sheets. A card or sheet may be displayed complete on a page, but the next page may show its edge as if an overlapping photo had been taken. On some pages, the items overlap like a collage. At times, the effect is one of moving down a corridor of blackboards that are covered with notices and captioned photos on white, green and fluorescent orange paper. At other times, the page contains multiple cards as if lying on a flat surface — much the same as objects might be arranged in gallery glass cases — and in different orientations so that the book has to be turned clockwise or anti-clockwise to read each item — much the same as having to walk around a glass case to look at each object in it.
Interspersed glossy sections showcase projects illustrating or responding to the text or the department. For example, Slovenian graphic designer Nejc Prah delivers variations on Masonic tools for Symbols; Paris-based Fanette Mellier, on grid-based design for Poetics; and the Amsterdam-based studio Moniker, “board game cut-ups” for Play. While these sections fit their context in the book, their content and “slippery floor” substrate ratchet up the sense of disorientation. Museum visitors easily tire, and they can be bored in some departments.
Nejc Prah‘s variations on Masonic tools and symbols. Photo: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
For example, the palace’s labyrinth of scripts — also reproduced separately on the perforated poster — is followed by a discussion of the revival of Tifinagh, the nearly extinct written language of the Tuareg in the Maghreb. The labyrinth presents thirty-six scripts in those varying orientations mentioned above and is wonderful in its breadth but also tiring — especially from the effort required by the font size and orientations. The story of Tifinagh’s revival and integration through typeface design is inspiring, usefully makes the point about the cultural conventionality of alphabets and more, but also makes for a long trek before our guide moves us along into the next department.
With the website for The Palace of Typographic Masonry, Richard Niessen aims for both a collective (imagined) building and an encyclopedic (digital) space, organized into those nine departments or frames. Contributors can add to the source collections or, within the departments and their subdivisions, create new rooms based on the source collections. One contribution particularly appropriate for the Books On Books Collection comes from Tony Côme: “The Typotectural Suites“. Here in one location, the visitor can find those “language towers, typographic islands, cities to decipher, plans in the shape of letters, encrypted walls, speaking bricks, habitable capitals” created by Johann David Steingruber, Antonio Basoli, Antonio and Giovanni Battista de Pian, Paul Noble and others.
The Departments of Sign, Symbol or Order could give more prominence to the role of numbers in the world of typographic masonry. Numerals do appear in the tables for Morse Code and International Maritime Signal Flags, but the visitor would not know that counting and numbers preceded writing and letters. Perhaps the curator could persuade the art historian and archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat to contribute images of those clay tokens to which
The Mesopotamian cuneiform script can be traced furthest back into prehistory to an eighth millennium BC counting system using clay tokens of multiple shapes. The development from tokens to script reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting. (Schmandt-Besserat, 2015)
Or perhaps the curator could persuade William Joyce to donate some clips from The Numberlys (2012) to the Palace source collection, even preferably some snippets of interactive code with which the visitor can help the five animated characters transform numbers into letters.
Universal languages are highlighted in an Annex, which has been compiled by Edgar Walthert. An update soon to come includes excerpts from Book from the Ground by Xu Bing. A link to Xu’s film The Character of Characters would make a useful addition. It will be interesting to see whether the Annex’s accompanying lecture covers the stir over a “post-text future” and whether typographic masons are returning full circle to pictographic language.
“Architecture“, Books on Books Collection, 12 November 2018.
These two coloring books do not integrate letters and buildings as Johann David Steingruber’s Architectural Alphabet does, but they speak to the multilingual theme recurrent in book art and the abecedaries in the Books On Books Collection (see Further Reading). In this case, the artist uses the two alphabets and the besieged city’s architecture as a memorial to her father, who was wounded in the siege.
The books also act as an entry point to Cridge’s installation art, which engages with what Ian Wallace has called “the literature of images”. Two particular installations — both curated by Cambridge’s Art Language Location (ALL) — serve to demonstrate the affinity of her art with themes in the Books On Books Collection: comm(o)nism(2018) and Antonym/Synonym(2019).