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[BKARTS] WOID #XI-38. American Gleichschaltung

Today’s New York Times has a sensitive analysis of a desensitized choice, the typeface for the cornerstone at the so-called Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center. As the reporter, David W. Dunlap, put its, the typeface reflects “the inherent ambiguity of the project: a solemn memorial ...that is simultaneously supposed to be a defiant restatement of the city’s commercial gigantism.”

Well, yes. The type in question is nominally new: it’s called Gotham, and was designed in 2002 by Hoefler and Frere-Jones, of New York. It’s a conscious, clean pastiche of the New Deal Gothics found all over New York City buildings. Unfortunately, as Dunlap points out, the Freedom Tower inscription uses only caps, which point its message towards the formal power of the brief titles on local landmarks like the “PORT OF AUTHORITY BUILDING” (as New Yorkers like to call it), and away from its own content. As the typographer John Kane puts it, “Use of upper- and lowercase would have democratized the message, removed its institutional pretensions.” In the case of the Freedom Tower Inscription this formal weight appears to be compensated slightly by a relative compression of the spacing, but that’s hard to judge from the photograph.
The irony is, that New Deal American Gothics had much in common with Futura and other sans-serifs of the 'twenties and ‘thirties: all were conscious attempts at what the Nazis were to call “Gleichschaltung,” “planification.” Type, like architecture, like the organization of society itself, was to be reduced to its bare, efficient essentials, rid of undesirable, local or ethnic elements. “Gleichschaltung” eventually came to mean the elimination of non-German elements from the academies, the courts, and even from typography. Certainly the American New Deal was nowhere as violent as the German, but it followed the same ideology of streamlining; one look at any number of ‘thirties-era post-offices should lay that issue to rest.

Dunlap concludes that the choice of Gotham is apt, at once for its symbolic and formal connotations: formal, in that it conveys a certain “institutional pretension” and symbolic, in that the typeface itself refers back to similar historical conjunctures and needs. It’s a truism by now that the Freedom Tower is a rather sad compromise between grief and greed. The article ends with a quote from the designer Ann Harakawa: “The idea of being slightly ambiguous is interesting, because no one has any idea of what’s going to come.” 


Least of all from the past. Futura and other such typefaces played a crucial role in the economic shifts of the Great Depression: because hot type constituted a major part of the capital investment of any printer the constant introduction and promotion of new typefaces left the small shops powerless to compete with the large industrial printers. To the extent that Futura was a “fashionable” face it was a threat to the small, highly trained shop owners who (in Germany at least) drifted into the Nazi Party. To the extent that Gleichschaltung promised “Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Futura-Bold,” it offered the illusion of an even playing field, in Germany as in America

There is simply no similar system of production at play, today: indeed, the most curious aspect of the long debate over the new replacement for the World Trade Center is the near-unanimous belief that capitalism and aesthetics are at loggerheads: in effect, that there is no reconciliation possible between the use of this building (or typeface), and its intended meaning. 

The technologically appropriate response to this problem would have been to enlarge and carve a hand-written inscription. That at least would have conveyed the felt ambiguity of the whole project, while promising that technology - the bringing into play of the means of production – offered a reconciliation of the democratic and the institutional. In Communist China, of course, such inscriptions were penned by Party leaders, but there’s no need for that, as yet: in fact, the quietly corrupt Governor of New York State asked that his name and the names of all officials be removed from the stone, marking it as the ultimate repression of écriture. The Freedom Tower Inscription marks the point where Post-Modernist irony appears for what it is, now: the sneer of defeatism and self-contempt.

Paul T Werner, New York

WOID: A journal of visual language

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