To Serif or not to Serif?

There was a time when to make something look cutting edge you just avoided serifs, those little embellishments on a letter of type that stops it looking like a block of wood. It was that simple. Helvetica as opposed to Times, News Gothic as opposed to Garamond. I’m talking typography again but this wasn’t the only realm in which the modern look shaved off ornamentation and embellishment for a fashionable stark machine finish.

This is just an example of the popular conception of modern, and was so, even a hundred years ago or more. But what was, or is, modern? If modern is really another word for new, how come the really modern styles began in earnest as early as the first decade of the 20th century. Indeed modern was new – once. It’s a semantic problem no less, but with an interesting history. The modern age heralded air travel, high rise
buildings, machines, a clean swish look, devoid of decoration or the fanciful use of, for instance, the capital of a column – the architectural equivalent of choosing non-serif Helvetica over serifed Times.

The way the public perception over the course of the 20th century was eased into the use of type without serifs marked a sea change in culture. Which is why we look at things like the type used in the London Underground and we think ‘how new’ but it’s almost a century old, designed by Edward Johnston in 1916. The same with slab serif faces like Rockwell which are timelessly new – contradictory though that may sound. Modern was a style just like any other style.

‘Modernism’ surrounded me at the Architectural Association in London, back in the 1960s when I studied there and it was a creed that few wavered from. It was a diet of Le Corbusier (above: Ronchamp), Mies Van de Rohe (below: Farnsworth House) and Buckminster Fuller et alia, and just about all the student work reflected this, my own included. It was the fashion, although the theme of teaching was always ‘meaningful spaces’ and ‘structural language’ etc., and much which was quite beyond me of architectural mumbo jumbo. However, one student in my year stuck to his guns and only designed in classical architectural styles, whether it was a petrol station or a vast hospital and he has done very well by all accounts, designing in the said classical styles for particular clients. Of course in these times some architects specialise in classical architectural styles as there is a demand for it. Others specialise in Gothic. Prince Charles’ favourite architect, Quinlan Terry has designed  important extensions to several Cambridge Colleges (eg Downing College: below) in classic styles much to the chagrin of competing  modern architects. Anyone who reads the newspapers must be familiar with Prince Charles’ on going spats with the modernist lobby, some of whom I have known and who rile at his championing of the traditional.

Modern Cambridge college architecture, like the Halls of Residence at Queens and the Faculty buildings on the Sidgewick site are monuments to the vast egos of modern architects like Norman Foster, James Stirling and Colin St John Wilson whose buildings represent to me a kind of eccentric and barren desperation with none of the feeling of beauty that Le Corbusier’s buildings inspired in me. Although the polymath Le Corbusier could be accused of just setting a ‘new’ fashion, which which was aped so badly and inappropriately all over the world, his own designs had their roots in an understanding of Greek proportion and his own humanistic proportional system, the Modulor (left) , based on the proportions of the human form. And he did all that with only one eye. This idea approaches sacred geometry in a way, the human form being of sacred design. It gave a human scale to every aspect of his designs. Although I know of no religious leanings he might have had, basing his Modulor on man approximated unwittingly sacred proportions as man is of nothing but divine origin. The head, arms, hand, foot, legs, torso and feet are all of divine design and nothing if not traditional.

The Cambridge Faculty of Divinity (St John Wilson), The Law Faculty building (Foster) and the History Faculty (Stirling), all next to each other on the Sidgewick site, are individually totally paradoxically un-functional buildings in different ways and have suffered many user complaints over their short life and have needed very expensive renovations since opening, in the case of the Divinity and History Faculties.

But the worse thing is that they look like redundant dinosaurs of vanity and ‘modern’ egocentricity plonked into an ancient university city. These building symbolise to me all that is wrong with this heartless technocratic age, founded on money and prestige with no link to humanity or human scale, in any form, all encased in chrome steel and tinted glass. How ironic that the Faculty of Divinity has no place of worship in it! It used to have its own chapel in its old premises on Trinity Street some years back. Why does the History Faculty building reflect nothing of history but looks like a curious L-shaped glass roofed factory built of industrial red brick? And why does a law building have to look like Stansted Airport or a city bank?

Divinity Faculty: Left
Law Faculty: Left Below

In the 1980s the Bin Laden Construction Company in Saudi who were responsible for the reconstruction of the Haramayn, offered me a job of removing human beings, by computer pixel replacement, from photographs of their new buildings like some kind of photoshop neutron bomb. Speaks volumes doesn’t it? I also worked on a fascinating film for the same Saudis about Medina and the men who worked on the original extension of the Prophet’s Mosque back in 1948. The film was rejected because it was about people. So it’s a pretty universal disease, this ‘modern’ dehumanising tendency.

As usual on these issues I find myself standing in the middle of the road, a dangerous place to be, as you get swiped by cars going in different directions. I find minimalism praiseworthy and I understand the reaction to the lavish visual and romantic excesses of the Victorian Age, but on first seeing medieval mosques in Morocco I saw how tradition and simplicity could marry perfectly together and how geometric decoration like zilij (anathema to the modernists) can be scintillating, elevating and totally integral to the building. How the modern architect loves vast uninterrupted surface. No clutter, no humans, no colour, no pattern. Visual puritanism.

Alexi Sayle, the seditious comedian and writer, wrote a little known short story (from The Dog Catcher) about a representative of this genre of architect, whose house is a modern sanctuary in Belgravia with glass staircases and no clutter but whose wife secretly rents a council flat filled with her plants and fluffy animals. Alexi bites deep into the hypocrisy of the modern architect and from my own first-hand experience gets it dead right. The universe of Alexi’s architect collapses dramatically when he finds someone has written Kilroy Was Here on his pristine exterior road facing wall. This hypocrisy needs deflating really badly but to challenge it now is to open yourself to a barrage of hate.

I don’t approve of everything the Prince does but at least he fearlessly confronts faceless, corporate culture and its hideous constructions. His rather anodyne neo-Georgian buildings are a welcome change from the general trend of techno-industrial brutalism but only a well-heeled minority appreciate it or can afford it or even care. Soon I hope he will be attacking HS2, the new pointless (excuse the pun) high speed railway line proposed through central England. All strength to him I say. This £30 billion white-elephant-to-be is like giving an old man with a nice wrinkled face a lobotomy and plastic surgery in the hope he might run in the Olympics. Britain is being systematically and senselessly strip-mined to satisfy corporate balance sheets and faceless, cultureless men in the city of London. (and the unions!) As one wit observed, HS2 will, on completion in 2025, drag Britain into the 1980s which is when most European and Asian countries began comparable high speed train services.

So those little serifs are well worth the trouble. Sans-serifs have their uses and can be beautiful but you have to keep a watchful eye on them. Serifs are like the eyelashes on the human eye. Without them the eye looks all wrong.

About Ian Whiteman

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