There is nothing more visual than a line of type. Indeed, typefaces are arguably one of those liminal things where the visual and the textual weave into and out of each other like a moebius strip. The foundations of text, they remind us of the degree to which text itself is a visual medium. For the most part, and in print form especially, they do as they should and go about their work unobtrusively, carrying syntax, meaning and expression in a way which readers might, for a brief moment, consider elegant or pleasing to the eye, but not to the point of distracting them from the textual matter in hand. Indeed, it seems that invisibility is one of the most poignant fates to befall particularly well-designed type; but it also easy to overlook the political and ideological work that type can do, as particular forms and shapes become invested with subliminal meanings and connotations.
At other times, the formal and material qualities of typefaces break cover in eye-catching ways. They challenge us not to look beyond them for the words they carry, but to dwell on their shape and colour, and recognise how they carry with them echoes and traces of the past. A recent walk through London’s Bloomsbury brought home the strange way in which type embodies history and sustains it in the present. The Imperial Hotel in Russell Square was built in the 1960s on the site of its namesake, designed by the same architect responsible for the Russell Hotel further up the street. Where the Russell Hotel retains the air of lofty, patrician grandeur typical of late nineteenth-century metropolitan hotels, the reincarnated Imperial, in its functional international style, expresses the post-war modernisation of central London, and its adaptation for the industrial-scale tourism of the jet age.
Yet what catches the eye isn’t so much the form of the hotel itself, as the letters which spell out its name, set rather fetchingly in orange against the grey of the concrete. Their formal and material qualities (rounded sans serif design, perspex manufacture, vibrant colour) are clearly intended to reflect the sense of clean, bold modernity articulated by the building itself, and the alternating bands of concrete and glass which constitute its façade. At the same time, there is something curiously haunting or melancholic about this signage, precisely because it hasn’t moved with the times. Preserved almost aspic-like as an expression of 1960s modernity, it brings into the present-day square folk memories of swinging London, of E-type Jaguars and the ‘white heat’ of technology (indeed, a sense that time is passing the hotel by seems to be the overriding impression of the guests who pass through its doors).
Cities, and capital cities especially, often appear to be places where the production and renewal of space is at its most frantic, and where built forms take on their most modern and adventurous expression. It was Charles Baudelaire who noted in ‘Le Cygne’ that ‘la forme d’une ville / Change plus vite, hélas! que le cœur d’un mortel’; but as Walter Benjamin also knew, in frequenting the arcades of Paris, the most modern architectural and symbolic forms have a habit of proposing a vision of the future even at the moment of its passing, and then hang around in that future as memories or promises of half-glimpsed dream worlds.