Fraktur

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Early one Monday this past December, Peter Dörfell started his week the way most of us do, which is to say, reluctantly.

Peter Dörfell:
So it was a normal Monday morning. I was going to go to work and I’ve only been awake for like half an hour or something, so I was still a bit woozy.

Roman Mars:
Peter lives in Dresden, Germany, where he works in elder care visiting clients at their homes and to do that, he usually takes the bus, but that morning he noticed something unusual as he boarded.

Peter Dörfell:
When I got on the bus, I see that the bus driver had put up a sign inside of the bus that said in German ‘Diesen Bus Steuert ein Deutscher Fahrer,’ which means: ‘This bus is driven by a German driver.’

Kevin Caners:
A homemade sign saying ‘this bus is driven by a German driver,’ was not the kind of thing Peter was used to seeing on his daily commute.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Kevin Caners.

Kevin Caners:
But to Peter, the driver’s message was pretty clear.

Peter Dörfell:
I can only interpret that the person who put up the sign would have said. But the implication to me was this is a good bus. You do not have to worry. You can talk to me in German because I am one of the good ones and not a foreigner.

Roman Mars:
But what really drove the message of this sign home was not just the words but the typeface they were printed in.

Kevin Caners:
A typeface from a larger family of typefaces once used throughout Germany and commonly referred to as Fraktur.

Roman Mars:
In which in English goes by a different name, blackletter.

Kevin Caners:
Blackletter is the type of old-timey Gothic typeface that you often see used for the bold front titles of newspapers like the ‘New York Times’ or ‘Washington Post.’ You might also see it on tattoos or the T-shirts of heavy metal bands. Put it on a page and it brings to mind the time of castles, knights and feather quills.

Roman Mars:
But for many people, especially in Europe, blackletter is most closely associated with one thing. It’s the Nazi font.

Peter Dörfell:
I’m not that good with history and stuff, but what I know is that the font that was used by Nazi Germany, really, really, looks the same way as this.

Archival Tape:
“October of 1938, Adolf Hitler made his triumphant entrance into Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. Just days earlier, the world was at the brink of war and in France and Great Britain reluctantly signed on to the Munich Pact.”

Roman Mars:
If you’ve ever caught even one minute of the ‘History Channel’ or really any documentary about World War II, you have seen this typeface on Nazi posters, on Nazi office buildings, on Nazi roadwork signs, usually saying something like ‘Verboten’ with a big exclamation mark.

Kevin Caners:
Today in Germany, blackletter typefaces are frequently used by Neo-Nazi groups and for many Germans, they bring to mind the dark times of the country’s fascist past.

Roman Mars:
Which is why it was pretty clear to Peter and the other passengers on the bus what was going on with this bus driver’s sign.

Florian Hardwig:
The message by itself is not welcoming and has this nationalist tone, but the font choice adds to that.

Kevin Caners:
Florian Hardwig is a graphic designer in Berlin and the editor of a website called, ‘Fonts in Us.’ He says that in Germany when it’s not being used on a band tee or masthead, blackletter has a very specific set of connotations.

Florian Hardwig:
The blackletter typefaces as a genre have been associated with German nationalism for a long time and everybody who sees them today knows that it’s not a standard choice. It sends a signal emphasizing the ‘Germanness.’

Peter Dörfell:
Even if it was in a neutral font, it would still have been a problematic thing, but it’s kind of like the cherry on top. The one thing that really drives the point home.

Roman Mars:
The sign that Peter saw that day would end up causing a big stir in Germany and get folded into an ongoing debate surrounding racism, nationalism, and culture. A debate in which the use of blackletter often serves as a kind of symbolic dividing line.

Kevin Caners:
Today, depending on one’s perspective, blackletter can either represent German culture’s rich and proud heritage or alternatively symbolize everything that’s wrong with it. But to understand how people’s feelings about a simple typeface got to this point, we need to go back to the moment of its birth.

Roman Mars:
Because once upon a time in that bygone era of knights and castles and feather quills, blackletter wasn’t limited to Germany. It wasn’t even Germanic. Instead, it was used all across Europe.

Kevin Caners:
Blackletter may seem incredibly ornate like it was created for the sole purpose of turning letterforms into little individual flourishes of art. It definitely does not seem like a common means of communication.

Roman Mars:
But back in the Middle Ages, blackletter with its angular forms was actually considered practical, especially for monastic scribes copying out entire books by hand.

Dan Reynolds:
Blackletter initially developed in the Middle Ages because forms that had these kinds of angles were easier to write more rhythmically and correctly then rounded forms.

Kevin Caners:
Dan Reynolds is an American type designer and historian who has been living in Germany for the last two decades and he says that today we’re used to typefaces with perfectly rounded curves. Think of our O’s, U’s, P’s and C’s. But while these shapes look easy enough to draw, if you’re using a quill to draw out thousands of them, page after page, they’re not.

Roman Mars:
And then just as now, readers valued standardization in the text. Every letter, even the rounded ones had to look exactly the same, but it was hard for a monk copying out a long text to draw consistently perfect circles.

Dan Reynolds:
So blackletter writing styles probably arose so that the products would be more even in their appearance and probably also faster to produce.

Roman Mars:
If you were a scribe, it was a lot easier to produce all those O’s and U’s and C’s out of a series of short straight lines.

Kevin Caners:
The technique of using straight lines instead of perfectly rounded curves gave the letters a fragmented appearance, which is actually how Germany’s most common form of blackletter type would get its name, Fraktur.

Florian Hardwig:
That’s the Latin term for ‘broken’ because the letterforms have these broken angle curves.

Kevin Caners:
Blackletter was first developed in France in the 12th century, but within a few hundred years it had become standard throughout Europe. It wasn’t even really a stylistic choice. It was just what words looked like and went unquestioned.

Susan Reed:
That was what people thought of when they thought of writing, when they thought of text.

Kevin Caners:
Susan Reed is head of Germanic studies at the British Library and she says that blackletter became so ingrained in the culture that even after it stopped being needed, people kept using it.

Susan Reed:
And so when the printing press was introduced, most of the early typefaces were some variety of blackletter typeface.

Roman Mars:
As with so many big leaps in technology, the printing press started off by borrowing heavily on the design conventions that came before it, even though the new operating principles made those conventions unnecessary.

Kevin Caners:
Even Gutenberg, the man who developed the first popular printing presses was no exception. He went for a Textura, a narrow, very angular blackletter typeface that was also used by scribes at that time.

Roman Mars:
At first, the printing press appeared to only further cement blackletter status as Europe’s dominant form of writing, but soon it would be challenged by a very different kind of typeface, Roman. Kind of rolls off the tongue.

Kevin Caners:
And trust me, you’ve definitely seen Roman type before too.

Dan Reynolds:
It’s the style of letter that’s associated with Imperial Rome.

Roman Mars:
But just like the letters chiseled onto the side of an ancient marble column, Roman letters are sparer and more vertical than their blackletter counterparts. You’d also probably find them a lot easier to read and there’s a reason for that.

Dan Reynolds:
The letters are instantly recognizable as they look like the letters that we’ve been reading our entire lives.

Kevin Caners:
Today, almost all major Western typefaces are Roman, from Times New Roman to Arial. Every time you open up Microsoft Word or Google Docs, you’re using Roman type. It’s our era’s blackletter. It’s just what writing looks like.

Susan Reed:
Yes. I mean it’s a strange thing. People sort of ask, why Fraktur became the default typeface in Germany and I always almost want to flip the question on its head and say, why did Roman become the default everywhere else when most printing started in blackletter type?

Roman Mars:
Roman script might have stayed lost to history, but right around the same time, Gutenberg was printing blackletter bibles in Germany, something else was happening in Italy. Renaissance scholars were rediscovering ancient Roman texts.

Dan Reynolds:
You had this rediscovery and the renaissance of classical literature and the classical world and classical letterforms were being brought back.

Kevin Caners:
Committed to bringing back the culture and wisdom of antiquity, Italian scholars began consciously developing their own Roman-style letters, which drew heavily on the classical forms they encountered.

Susan Reed:
And so when they started printing classical texts, then they started using those as well.

Kevin Caners:
At first, Roman type was used strictly for texts written in Latin, the language of antiquity and the church, but pretty quickly and for reasons that remain a little hazy, Roman type broke out of its Latin cage and kind of took over.

Roman Mars:
By the end of the 16th century, Roman type had become common in the written vernacular languages of France and Spain. England followed suit in the 17th century. The Netherlands and Sweden in the 18th.

Kevin Caners:
It had become the very same thing that blackletter had been before, ubiquitous and unquestioned.

Roman Mars:
But even as Roman became the Western world’s dominant form of writing, Germany and the German language stayed resolutely committed to blackletter. An island of broken script in a sea of curves.

Kevin Caners:
And it’s mostly thanks to the bestselling author and the history of the German language, Martin Luther.

Monty Python Clip:
“The adventures of Martin Luther.”

Kevin Caners:
Luther and the Protestant reformation he set in motion in Germany threw everything that had to do with Rome and the Catholic church into doubt.

Archival Tape:
“The partisan reformer whose reassessment of the role of individual in Christian belief shook the foundations of a post-feud Germany in the grip of the 16th century.”

Kevin Caners:
And in the process, he gave German as a written language, a big boost.

Dan Reynolds:
Luther, by writing so much and trying to write to as broad as possible audience, really codified a lot of what written German was.

Kevin Caners:
Luther and other German Protestants were especially keen to distinguish German writing from the writing of Catholic Italy, which they saw as corrupt, even evil, and that included the church’s favorite typeface.

Dan Reynolds:
So there was an explicit casting of Roman type as being associated with the Pope and with Catholicism and things that were not German. And this was at least by the time Luther is getting to his bible editions, this is an explicit wish that they be set in German type and not in Roman type.

Roman Mars:
But there was one German typeface in particular which would end up being used more than any other, Fraktur.

Kevin Caners:
Fraktur came to be seen as uniquely German, almost as if it were imbued with special dramatic values. So much so that people would eventually refer to all of German blackletter typefaces as Fraktur.

Roman Mars:
This association of Fraktur with all things good and Roman with all things bad became so strong that in some of Luther’s German Bible editions, unpleasant words like wrath and devil and punishment were set in a Roman typeface to distinguish it from the rest of the text, which stayed in Fraktur.

Kevin Caners:
Later, German texts would go even further, applying the rule if even part of a word was borrowed from another language.

Susan Reed:
And you actually get these other wonderful things where there’s a foreign loan word, as say a Latin stem and German suffix, the Latin stem within the same word will be printed in Roman letters and then the ending in Fraktur.

Dan Reynolds:
So this is a clear break typographically on the page from Rome and just as there wasn’t going to be a reconciliation between Germany and Italy, there wasn’t going to be a typographic reconciliation either.

Roman Mars:
At first, blackletter remained popular in many parts of Protestant Europe, but one by one, the other Protestant countries began to give in to the temptations of Roman type until finally, Germany was the lone holdout.

Kevin Caners:
In part because, unlike the people in those other Protestant countries, Germany remained a fragmented jumble of smaller states until the late 1800s. So Fraktur came to be seen as one of the things holding German national identity together, especially in the 19th century when the country was invaded by Napoleon.

Roman Mars:
The occupying French had their Roman letters and the Germans had Fraktur.

Susan Reed:
Germany as a nation without nationhood as a collection of small, quite fragmented states, needed these other symbols of national identity, and I think this is when Fraktur particularly becomes associated with Germany and the German language and German culture.

Kevin Caners:
Many came to believe that where there was no Fraktur, there was no Germany, including the mother of Germany’s greatest writer.

Susan Reed:
Goethe’s mother, she actually described Roman letters as fatal, as if they’re almost sort of painful for her to read. I think that’s something that’s often quoted as evidence of this naturalness of Fraktur if Germany’s greatest writer’s mother approved of it.

Kevin Caners:
In 1871, when Germany finally unified, Fraktur became the official government typeface and Otto Von Bismarck, the first chancellor was such a staunch supporter that he said he would refuse to read any German book not set in German type.

Roman Mars:
But right around the time they finally got their own country, a growing contingent of Germans began to wonder if they really needed their own typeface.

Kevin Caners:
Liberal, cosmopolitan and future-facing, these Germans came to feel it was silly to keep using letterforms from the Middle Ages. They began pressing for Germany to drop its beloved Fraktur and move to Roman type.

Dan Reynolds:
There were people sort of in the spirit of progress and modernism who thought that this is crazy, we should be a more international country where we’re connected with our neighbors, we have business ties and cultural ties.

Kevin Caners:
Increasingly academic and scientific papers intended for foreign distribution were being printed in Roman type and as the world became more international, Roman type also started seeping in. It began to be taught in schools alongside Fraktur, and by 1891 about 40% of German books were being printed in Roman.

Roman Mars:
But more conservative Germans pushed back. They insisted that blackletter was and should remain a cultural staple.

Kevin Caners:
In 1911, the German Reichstag actually held a vote on whether the country should switch over by having Roman replace Fraktur as the official typeface in German schools and government offices. But after a fierce debate, the legislation didn’t pass. German topography had reached a stalemate with neither side willing to budge.

Roman Mars:
Even by the end of the 1920s, in the era of telephones, radios, refrigerators, and jazz, traditional Fraktur street signs could be seen hanging next to art deco posters featuring sans serif Roman fonts.

Florian Hardwig:
It was a dual thing. If you look at photographs from the cityscape in the 1880s or 1890s, you would see both letterforms and maybe even more on Roman type because that was the style associated with commerce and advertising.

Kevin Caners:
It was as though there were two separate typographical realities representing two different Germanies.

Roman Mars:
Fraktur would end up losing the struggle for Germany’s soul, but it wasn’t the liberal freedom-loving over-educated cosmopolitans who finally broke the impasse. Instead, it was the most ardent German nationalist of all time.

Archival Tape:
“The responsibility lies on the shoulders of one man, by his latest act of naked aggression, Hitler has committed a crime against the whole human race.”

Kevin Caners:
In 1933, the Nazi party rose to power on a wave of German chauvinism. And at first, this seemed like great news for those in favor of traditional blackletter typefaces.

Archival Tape:
“He has rejected every appeal for a peaceful settlement. All have been rebuffed by the leader of the German Nazis in his senseless criminal greed for power.”

Kevin Caners:
Fraktur was in, Roman was out.

Dan Reynolds:
There was a lot of push from certain areas within the government and within the party to use the moment in 1933 to ram this change through, to get rid of Roman type and really make everything be blackletter.

Kevin Caners:
Directives were given in the interior ministry that said, from now on, they would use blackletter typewriters for everything. Many publishers changed over and the proportion of books and newspapers printed in Fraktur type grew substantially.

Dan Reynolds:
And you see placards that tell Germans to be German, to think German, to even be German in their writing. And of course, these are in Fraktur.

Roman Mars:
There was just one problem. Adolf Hitler kind of hated Fraktur.

Adolf Hitler Speech:
[speaking in German]

Susan Reed:
So in 1934, he actually made a speech in which he criticized the obsession with outward trappings of Germanness among which he included Gothic writing.

Kevin Caners:
This gothic romanticism, Hitler says, is ill-suited to our age of iron glass and steel.

Adolf Hitler Speech (continued):
[speaking in German]

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t that Hitler wasn’t into traditional German values. He just didn’t think that should mean being old-fashioned.

Dan Reynolds:
It’s hard to have everyone living in the mountains, on farms with their cows and their sheep and their goats and also working in factories to build high-tech airplanes and rockets.

Susan Reed:
And when the Olympics came to Berlin in 1936, he insisted that a lot of the publicity and the posters for that show it should be in Roman rather than Fraktur type. Because you were bringing the world to see the new Germany.

Kevin Caners:
Besides, Hitler thought his fascist values shouldn’t just apply to Germans. The Third Reich was supposed to span the globe.

Susan Reed:
Hitler actually said that German was becoming the world language and within a hundred years everybody would be speaking German.

Roman Mars:
But even Hitler’s delusions of grandeur had their limits. He knew that if he wanted to rule over the world, he would have to use a typeface the rest of the world could actually read.

Kevin Caners:
And so in 1941, an edict was circulated to all publishers and printers on behalf of the furor himself decreeing that Roman type become the standard type throughout Germany.

Roman Mars:
Effective immediately. Neither Fraktur nor its cursive counterparts were to be taught in schools, used in government documents or appear on street signs. All magazines and newspapers were likewise expected to change over to the Roman script.

Susan Reed:
Which was quite an extraordinary thing to do in the middle of a world war. It’s very expensive to just suddenly go over from one typeface to another universally.

Dan Reynolds:
And the explanation in a letter is that – shock, horror – they had found out that blackletter was actually a Jewish invention and that it had to be dropped immediately. This wasn’t true, but it was an unassailable argument. It was impossible to come back from that.

Kevin Caners:
Fraktur didn’t finish everywhere overnight, but with the edict, it quickly fell out of use and it would never fully recover.

Roman Mars:
The Nazis brought an end to blackletter’s 800 year run as a common form of writing. So it’s ironic that the typeface Hitler banned and personally disliked remained stubbornly associated with them.

Kevin Caners:
Perhaps it’s because the Nazis promoted Fraktur so heavily before changing course, but it’s also just because they were German nationalists and it was a traditional German typeface. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they’ve found it hard to shake the connection.

Roman Mars:
Especially telling was the edict itself. The one banning Fraktur. Although the memorandum was typed in Roman font, the Nazi letterhead at the top was printed in blackletter.

Kevin Caners:
By 1945 when Germany was finally defeated, no one wanted anything to do with the “Nazi font.”

Susan Reed:
And by the 1950s it had pretty much died out. I think I saw some statistics that between 1951 and 1979 there was something like 34 books published in Fraktur in that whole period, so that’s quite astonishing.

Roman Mars:
Whether or not it’s okay to use blackletter today is a complicated question, especially in Germany. It depends on the context and it doesn’t always make sense.

Florian Hardwig:
Yeah. Fraktur on a restaurant sign or on a beer label is invisible and you can Fraktur mastheads on newspapers like ‘New York Times’ because that’s normal. That’s what we’re used to.

Kevin Caners:
Consumer items and commercial ventures that want to evoke a more innocent sense of tradition and quality often use blackletter without any trouble. The same goes for heavy metal bands and other people that want to play up its medieval or gothic qualities.

Roman Mars:
But there are also contexts where its use is not innocent and can’t be forgiven has naive.

Kevin Caners:
When Peter Dörfell, the bus rider in Dresden, saw that sign, the one that said, “This bus is driven by a German driver.” It was printed in blackletter and Peter knew exactly what it was meant to communicate.

Peter Dörfell:
Like if I were the person that was potentially targeted by potential Nazis, I would definitely take the next bus.

Kevin Caners:
In fact, the sight of the sign and of the font was so alarming that there was no way he could just let it go.

Peter Dörfell:
So I was thinking to myself, what should I do? Should I talk to the guy? I didn’t know what to do, but then I thought, wait, this is an official public bus. I don’t think that’s even legal.

Kevin Caners:
When Peter got off the bus, he took a picture of the homemade sign on his phone and tweeted it at the Dresden Public Transit Authority asking essentially ‘what the hell is this?’

Peter Dörfell:
And they responded like really quickly, a half an hour later. And they were like, “Yeah, somebody already told us that. We don’t know how that could happen. We already took the sign down and the bus driver will not be driving today anymore.” So I was like, “All right, thanks for the quick answer. Good thing.” And I thought that was it.

Roman Mars:
But a little later, a journalist messaged Peter on Twitter.

Peter Dörfell:
And it’s like, “Hey, I’m with the press. Do you want to do an interview?” I’m kind of like, “Okay, sure.” And from there on it just kind of spiraled.

Kevin Caners:
The story appeared on the local news. Then on the national news when the driver was let go, some German nationalists wrote tweets in the driver’s defense.

Peter Dörfell:
Then some right-wing politicians retweeted it. Then I got some hate mail. Ugh…

Roman Mars:
In the end, it took a couple of weeks for everything to die down. Although that doesn’t mean the larger issues swirling around Fraktur are anywhere near resolved.

Kevin Caners:
Alt-right nationalism remains on the rise in Germany and especially since the refugee crisis, controversies surrounding the use of the typeface seem to be happening with more frequency. No mainstream conservative politician publicly uses Fraktur, but in 2017 a police anti-terror unit in the state of Saxony was sanctioned for using a logo on the interior of one of their specialized vehicles that featured a blackletter font.

Roman Mars:
Mostly though the only people openly using Fraktur are Neo-Nazi groups promoting their hyper-traditional version of German nationalism. Apparently most of them still don’t realize that Hitler considered their favorite typeface hopelessly tacky and provincial.

Kevin Caners:
And many nationalists don’t even understand which typeface it is they’re using. The Dresden bus driver, for example, may have thought his sign was in Fraktur. It was actually in Old English, a blackletter typeface that has no historical connection to Germany.

Roman Mars:
Of course, if Peter’s story about the bus driver and his blackletter sign demonstrates anything, it’s that no matter what the real historical facts are, Fraktur will never return to the mainstream. For better or worse, it’s going to keep on being the Nazi font.

Florian Hardwig:
This long tradition of centuries of use is kind of forgotten and all we can see now are these 12 years of Nazis and yeah, you can’t change that. It has happened and that’s the way it is and it won’t come back.

Roman Mars:
But even if they don’t think it should return to everyday use, those who study Fraktur don’t want to see it completely forgotten either.

Kevin Caners:
And perhaps no one more so than Hanno Blohm.

Hanno Blohm:
“Meinen Namen kennen Sie. Hanno Blohm Hanno Wilhelm Blohm bin ich genannt worden.”

Kevin Caners:
Hanno is a 76-year-old retired teacher and is the president of the Association for German Script and Language which is dedicated to preserving and improving people’s knowledge of Fraktur and other old writing styles.

Hanno Blohm:
“Und dass sie das so machen, zeigt nur, dass sie von der Geschichte unserer Sprache, unserer Schrift nichts wissen. Die wissen, dass nicht.”

Kevin Caners:
He says that the fact that Neo-Nazis used blackletter typefaces only shows that they know nothing about Germany’s history.

Roman Mars:
And much of this historical ignorance is for a deeply ironic reason. Most Germans have trouble reading older German documents precisely because they are in Fraktur.

Kevin Caners:
You could probably read something printed in Fraktur, but even then only with a bit of effort and patience and handwritten Fraktur is much more difficult. It’s basically illegible for most people today. As a consequence, many of the books and letters and diaries of the past have become harder to connect with.

Roman Mars:
Which is why one of the association’s main activities today and the one Hanno is most passionate about is teaching children how to read and write old German cursive.

Kevin Caners:
During our interview, he shows me some correspondence from the 19th century whose handwriting I can’t make heads or tails of and I say, “That looks hard.”

Hanno Blohm:
“Schreibschrift bis ins 19. Jahrhundert. Ja. Das kann man hier. Hoch. Die Hände rein. Für mich ist das nicht einfach.”

Kevin Caners:
But Hanno assures me I’d learn fast.

Hanno Blohm:
“Sie sehen, Sie würden das ganz schnell lernen, ganz schnell, ganz schnell.”

Kevin Caners:
That I’d be amazed at myself.

Hanno Blohm:
“Ja, Sie würden über sich selbst staunen.”

Roman Mars:
Hanno hopes documents like this one will help people avoid making the mistakes of previous generations. After all, at 76 he’s old enough to have lived through the war when as a small child, his city was destroyed in a bombing raid and his family had to be evacuated.

Hanno Blohm:
“Wer nicht weiß, woher er kommt.”

Kevin Caners:
So he tells me how important it is that we learn from history-

Hanno Blohm:
“Der weiß auch nicht, in welche Richtung er künftig gehen sollte.”

Kevin Caners:
About war and peace and about how to get along and about the Germans of the past, like Luther and Goethe who wrote about all these things and mostly in Fraktur.

Roman Mars:
Cultural wars and fights about nationalism aren’t just for fonts. We have these arguments about buildings too. We’re talking about making federal buildings beautiful again after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
As we were producing the story of Fraktur and its starring role in this centuries-long drama of German nationalism, a contemporary story hit the news that was also at the intersection of design and nationalism. In this case, the story was about the architecture of US federal buildings. On February 4th, 2020, ‘Architectural Record’ published a story commenting on a draft of an executive order that they got a hold of that called for the White House to adopt federal guidelines to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style,” when it came to new and upgraded federal buildings.

Roman Mars:
The order was authored by a group called the National Civic Art Society and it was titled ‘Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,’ in case you were at all confused as to the audience that this particular order was pandering to. Our friend, the architecture critic, and celebrated McMansion skeptic Kate Wagner wrote a column in ‘The New Republic’ about it and I called her up to talk about it. The first thing I did was ask her what the authors of this order mean when they say that all federal buildings should it be in the classical architectural style.

Kate Wagner:
So it’s kind of funny. Their idea of what classicism is basically just anything inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, but also 19th-century Victorian kitsch is fine too. Because they included the Eisenhower building, which is this ridiculous second empire building with a million columns. And I hate it so much and it’s so ugly, but they were like, “This is great architecture.”

Roman Mars:
Well for the record, I kind of like the Eisenhower building – it’s pretty fussy and very French – but the point is that when people extol the greatness of classical architecture, they’re basically talking about columns.

Kate Wagner:
Yep. They’re basically talking about columns.

Roman Mars:
This broad advocacy for classical architecture is in opposition to more modernist or brutalist styles.

Kate Wagner:
They believe that modernism is degenerate and it’s ruining everything and people hate it. And we need to free people from modernism because it’s not the architecture of the people or whatever, which is of course ridiculous. How many people go to see Fallingwater literally every year? I don’t know.

Roman Mars:
So this proposed order is a 180-degree reversal to a seminal document written in 1962 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan called ‘Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture’ that explicitly stated, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.”

Kate Wagner:
Yeah, so there was basically a mandate in that document that said an official architectural style must be avoided and that federal buildings and new buildings should be exemplary of the time in which they are built, the opposite in spirit to the proposed executive order.

Roman Mars:
The architecture community reacted very strongly to this proposal, and I should stress here that this is not an official proposal from the White House. It’s a draft of a proposal that one influential group hopes the White House will adopt, but people have taken it very seriously. The American Institute of Architects released this statement, “The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nations, diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.” Beyond the codification of one federal style, the architecture community objected to one aspect of the order in particular.

Kate Wagner:
This order would allow Trump to create a “president’s committee for the re-beautification of federal architecture,” which is such a trolley name, and which would enforce this classical design mandate. And this panel would exclude, “artists, architects, engineers, art or architecture critics, members of the building industry or any other members of the public that are affiliated with any interest group or organization involved in architecture.” So basically anyone who works in architecture, has anything to do with architecture is not allowed to comment on architecture in this panel. So of course, everyone is mad. The AIA is mad, the preservationists are mad. Kate Wagner, the architecture critic is mad.

Roman Mars:
The objection from the architectural community, including yourself, is not an objection to classical architecture, right?

Kate Wagner:
No classical architecture is great. Ever since architecture has existed, there have been architectural revivals of past styles. I mean it is a debate that frames the history of architecture and the debate is commonly known as the ancients versus the moderns.

Roman Mars:
And that debate is like a healthy debate.

Kate Wagner:
It’s a healthy debate.

Roman Mars:
It’s part of architecture, it’s part of culture.

Kate Wagner:
Yeah, exactly. When do we look towards the past for architectural ideas, and when do we push forward through various integrations of those ideas together in a sort of eclectic mash, or furthering technological progress. I mean it’s one of the classic debates of architecture. But the thing is, is that classicism is… I mean, classical buildings are beautiful, obviously, and it’s important that architects be trained in classicism, and it’s important that a lot of architects go on to study classicism and to practice building classical buildings. Because we always need people to, for example, make additions to historical buildings, make restorations to historical buildings, to lecture on historical buildings. To work across other fields, including anthropology and archeology, to talk about how historical buildings may have been in the past. I mean it’s a really central and important part of architecture.

Kate Wagner:
That being said, time always moves forward and architecture historically and today has always been a conversation between past and present. Not a dogmatic argument between past and present, though that has happened. That’s what preservation is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be making a moth-balled museum of every building. It’s how do we reconcile historical architecture with contemporary needs, with contemporary economics, with contemporary politics. That’s what preservation does and modernism is included in that. The problem is not classical architecture. The problem is that there’s a certain type of chud online who thinks that classical architecture is proof that Western society is better than other societies. And that we had a beautiful Western society that was infallible but crumbled under globalization, or immigration, or whatever right-wing crypto-fascist element you think ruined columns.

Roman Mars:
The one and only Kate Wagner. You can find her writing at ‘The New Republic’ and mcmansionhell.com. If you want to hear more from her, she’s the star of episode number 232 of 99PI. It’s called ‘McMansion Hell.’ It’s one of my favorites.

Credits

Production

Reporter Kevin Caners spoke with Peter Dörfell; Florian Hardwig, graphic designer;  Dan Reynolds, type designer and historian; Susan Reed, head of Germanic Studies at the British Library; Hanno Blohm, President of the Bund für Deutsche Schrift und Sprache. This episode was edited by Joe Rosenberg.

  1. There’s a craft pub in Dublin, the Beer Market, which has some strange artworks upstairs. A reproduction of the Laughing Cavalier with “Laughter is the best medicine” across it, Déjeuner sur l’herbe with “Silence is one of the fine arts of conversation”. And the writing is in one of these style fonts. It’s slightly unsettling, and I guess the juxtaposition is intentional. But I wonder if people who don’t know the history don’t see it and the whole thing is an accident. My mother grew up reading this script in that Germany, and was not sorry to see the back of it.

  2. Nervig Hinterfragen

    This comment is not to dispute the contemporary appropriation of Blackletter by right-wing nationalism and Neo-Nazi groups. That cannot be contested.

    Rather, I wonder about the conclusion that Blackletter’s persistence into the 20th Century comes down to a Protestant act of resistance-cum-nationalism.

    If this were a rebellious act against Roman Catholicism, what Blackletter’s status was in Catholic Bavaria? What about (mostly) Catholic, Germanophone Hapsburgia? Was it less secure and more variably applied there compared to the northern, protestant regions (Prussia, Saxony, Thuringia, etc.)?

    Conversely, what was Blackletter’s status in German-speaking, (mostly) Protestant Switzerland? 

    I’m posing these questions because I know enough to wonder, but not enough to know.

    1. Stephanie

      I was wondering the same thing. I get that 99pi is mostly for american listeners but as a european it is a bit frustrating that these things are often generalised.

  3. Goetz

    Hi, loved the episode! Does anyone know where I might find a picture of that 1941 edict that banned Fraktura?

  4. cph

    I like the article (didn’t listen to the podcast yet), but I’m not sure, if the Bund für deutsche Schrift und Sprache is the most trustworthy address for information about Fraktur, especially concerning it’s political implications, as the Bund für deutsche Schrift und Sprache has been linked to a right-wing movement (the Bund für Gotterkenntnis) itself.

    See: https://daserste.ndr.de/panorama/archiv/2019/Steuer-Vorteile-fuer-rechtsradikale-Vereine,gemeinnuetzigkeit102.html
    (sadly in German)

  5. Unless I am mistaken, the font the bus driver used isn’t actually a Fraktur, but one of the generic Textura usually known as “Old English”, probably because the bus driver did it using the first (or only) font that came to hand. If it had been done correctly, it would also have used the long form (ſ) for non-terminal ‘s’, as in “Dieſen Bus ſteuert ein Deutſcher Fahrer”, and the ‘ch’ would have been a ligature. Ignorance will often betray those who seek to fool people.

    1. Bob Lieberman

      Peter Flynn, near the end of the podcast piece on Fraktur, Roman Mars does point out that, as you correctly spotted, the font is actually Old English.

  6. Donald McMahan

    I see “Irish Driver” signs in taxis in Dublin…. I don’t get in those taxis

  7. Adam

    I have an 1862 French / Danish dictionary book that is Danish in Fraktur and the French in Roman font

  8. Peter

    I’d like to comment on the last bit. I think this topic would make a good full length episode… Please consider this as a pitch ;)

    I’m a member of a few ‘classical architecture’ groups but I’m not a diehard classicist myself. I find it upsetting that many others are and despise everything ‘modern’. That being said, I think hardcore modernists, especially those in the academia are more to blame here. It’s different in the US, as there are quite a few classical architects and revival-style buildings being built, but in Europe the hatred towards everything non-contemporary is still standing strong. I read an interview with one of the prominent architects and architecture professor last year. She was mocking a student proposing a tympanum in his design, labeling it as hideous and pointless. Hatred breeds hatred and polarizes people, even in such a field.

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