Archigraphy: Lettering on Buildings – a book review

Published 2016, Archigraphy is a rare example of writing which approaches the topic of lettering from an architectural rather than a graphic design viewpoint.

The term ‘archigraphy’ has seemingly been coined by the authors, Zurich-based lettering designer Agnes Laube and architect Michael Widrig. The term ‘archigraphy’ (which denotes the relationship between graphics and architecture) is more than a simple portmanteau of the two words. It is a multifaceted concept concerned with meanings, words, symbols and scripts. It challenges the difference between seeing and reading. And it also questions who bears responsibility. What messages are being communicated, by whom, and are they being regulated?

The authors divide the subject into certain key areas: a discussion on what they perceive archigraphy to mean; a brief history of lettering in architecture; 28 distinct projects involving large-scale lettering on buildings; a discussion on signage and lettering types; construction/production methods for the different mediums and finally the project stages involved with commissioning an architectural lettering project.

Originally written in German, the book is interesting for UK-based architects for several reasons. Firstly, most English books on this subject have originated from within the graphic design discipline. This is not inherently problematic, but an architecturally-oriented perspective is perhaps overdue.

The international approach to the historical overview is both refreshing and useful in putting the uniqueness of Britain’s lettering tradition into context. Unlike many existing English publications which place heavy emphasis on Classical models, and Johnston and Gill (who were indeed highly influential in reviving lettering as an artform in 20th Century Britain), these are discussed in a wider historical and geographical context. The architectural overview variously touches upon Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and crime”, the Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, Italian Futurism, and the post-modernism of US architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

The authors feel that in the UK, lettering and architecture evolved independently, even as they interact. Whether or not this is the case is an interesting question. The overview culminates with where things are heading for archigraphy in the 21st century, the self-identification of buildings, signaletics, visual narration, and the hope that a revival of a more hands-on approach will lead to greater collaboration between graphic designers and architects in the future.

Overall this is an interesting resource for architects, one which brings the subject matter into the 21st century and frames it in an architectural discourse, and the introduction of international projects into the mix is refreshing.

Archigraphy: Lettering on Buildings
Agnes Laube and Michael Widrig
(Birkhauser / De Gruyter, 2016)