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Building public spaces from fonts, in Latin and Arabic.

Summary: Street signs, billboards and storefronts all have messages to convey.

BEIRUT: Street signs, billboards and storefronts all have messages to convey. Turn there, buy this, come and eat here. These explicit messages are, most often, conveyed through written language.

There are implicit messages in the words on signage, too. These are messages of power.

In Beirut, where the rare street sign does exist, Latin letters are almost always present next to Arabic. This horizontal placement provokes more questions than perhaps a street sign should. Does the sign-maker, the municipality for instance, consider English or French to be equal to the country's official language, Arabic? Are the signs aimed at foreigners as well as locals? Is this a residue of the country's colonial past?

In the past few years, the role language plays in landscape has become the stuff of academic studies and has even spawned a new term, "linguistic landscape." It was also recently the focus of an 18-month collaboration between 15 Arab and European designers, culminating in the book "Typographic Matchmaking in the City: Propositions for a pluralist public space," edited by the project's instigator Huda Smitshuijzen Abifares.

Smitshuijzen Abifares is a graphic designer and the founding director of the Khatt Foundation Center for Arabic Typography, the organization that provided the financial and ideological support for the project.

Five teams, made up of different combinations of graphic/type designers, architects, and product designers, were tasked with designing multilingual typography -- that is, Arabic and Latin scripts that somehow match.

This was also the focus of a 2005 project, Typographic Matchmaking in the City 1.0. This time around, the designers were to relate their alphabets to what Smitshuijzen Abifares calls, in the essay "About Typographic Matchmaking Projects," "the urban context of contemporary multicultural cities."

The book itself is a multilingual specimen, in English, Dutch, and Arabic: it even reads from both right and left. It contains essays on the concept of public space, the history of written Arabic in public space, and the relationship between language and architecture.

These essays, in particular Howayda al-Harithy's "Inscriptions and the Making of Public Space in Cairo" and Zeina Maasri's "In Praise of the Word" put the project in context. Harithy details the role inscriptions have played in Arab architecture, beginning with the Quranic inscriptions on Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, completed by the Umayyads in 691.

Maasri, the author of the 2008 study (and exhibition) "Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War," argues that language has been prioritized over graphics in Arab political posters, precisely because of the history that Harithy documents.

Although the essays are interesting in their own right, the five truly creative projects form the book's core.

Each team took the inspiration for their typefaces from different sources, and this inspiration is carefully documented. Notes from brainstorming sessions, early sketches, prototypes, all are here.

This provides an interesting insight into the thought behind typeface design. In this case, the process is especially complicated, as it is no easy task to create Arabic and Latin letters that correspond aesthetically.

For example, one typeface, called Kashida, took some inspiration from broken pieces of tagliatelle. Kashida eventually became a completely 3-D font, and in the book there is a photograph of small pieces of pasta. Sure enough, one can see in the starchy bits an "ayn," a "waw," and a "ha."

Beyond letters to be used on paper, these fonts are meant to become part of public space, and perhaps to help create public space. Unlike street signs, on which a linguistic power play may affect us unconsciously, these typefaces are meant to stand out. In this case the harmony or at least the connection between languages, and by extension cultures, is conscious.

Each project shows pages of font prototypes, suggestions of how the fonts might be integrated into real-life space. The Nuqat font, inspired by the DNA double helix and with all of the letters connected, becomes a jungle gym where a child climbs over words such as "kind" in primary colored connected Arabic and English.

The Storyline font, with its modular, modernist, and somewhat difficult to read letters, becomes the side of a building or a theater marquee. Architecture and words are merged.

The Kufam script, which takes its inspiration from what its designers call ancient Kufic script's "surprisingly modern quality," is probably the most readable, although whether this is a positive or a negative is up to the reader to decide.

In the Kufam letters, English and Arabic can be easily distinguished from each other, but they are graphically similar. They are seen carved into the side of a building, and marking the way for an attractive pedestrian crossing.

As Smitshuijzen Abifares describes in her essay, the effects of the first Typographic Matchmaking project, which concluded in 2007, have been fairly large because, as she says, "type design in the Arab world has been progressing slowly, and because the market is still small."

Big Vesta Arabic, a font that emerged from the project, is on the masthead of the Beirut-based cultural newspaper Hibr. Others have been used in newspapers, on signage, in books and on posters.

In Beirut, public space is at a premium. Typographic Matchmaking in the City, both the project and the resulting book, proposes some intriguing and important propositions.

In many cities in the region, modern buildings are decried for their sameness, and Beirut is no exception. What if, instead of destroying public space, architecture helped to create it? Language is often a divisive force. What if it could integrate with buildings to create multilingual and multicultural spaces, where everyone feels welcome?

"Typographic Matchmaking in the City" is published by Khatt Books.

Copyright 2011, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jun 15, 2011
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