The University of Amsterdam, UvA, has started construction of a new library designed by MVSA architects. The building, on the corner of the Binnengasthuisstraat and the Doelenstraat, is to get a “facade screen”, a sort of transparent veil, to protect the privacy of local residents and library users. The architect’s design for the bronze-coated screen was part of the permit application submitted to the municipality of Amsterdam.
After explorations of different textures and abstract shapes, the university selected a line by the Dutch writer Martinus Nijhoff: “Lees maar, er staat niet wat er staat,” which translates to: “Do read, it doesn’t say what it says.” A nice choice as it invites readers to be curious and not accept texts at face value. Each language department of the university made a translation of the line and the final design includes 22 languages in six different writing systems.
The UvA asked for a proposal for the typography of the text and a design for the type. As the languages included Greek, Hebrew, Cyrillic and Arabic, a number of type designers (and TypeMedia graduates) became involved: Aleksandra Samulenkova, Anya Danilova, Bahman Eslami and Daniel Grumer.
Deep dive into process: my lecture at TypeLab 2022 at Vimeo
The facade screen will be constructed from horizontal beams fixed to the front of the building, between which the letterforms are mounted. The text could not be all-caps and this created an interesting problem in terms of proportion; the solution was to make the descenders and ascenders very short. The whole facade consists of twenty-one lines, each 48 meters long. Over a kilometer of lettering! Nothing about this project is small.
The typeface has a touch of broad-nib contrast, with very sharp terminals. Early designs had a weight axis so that we could make a proper decision about the density of the letterforms, which is important when they are being used as a screen. The very short ascenders and descenders also increased privacy. Being incorporated into a building had yet another impact on the design: the tops of the letters have a 15° incline which is the minimum for good water run-off.
The Arabic design by Bahman Eslami had to make some compromises to fit in the available vertical space. Daniel Grumer signed up for the Hebrew design that will also be used for the Yiddish translation. Having three right-to-left languages in the layout proved another interesting challenge: these cannot be hyphenated, so the layout had to take that into account.
Python (another language from Amsterdam!), was used to calculate the lines, handle the justification and produce the output. Straight from RoboFont and UFO to PDF and STL. Drawbot was instrumental in proofing and building the layouts.
A limited number of letters were produced at full size to present to Amsterdam municipality officials on 1 September, 2021. The letters were bolted to a small section of the steel construction and hoisted by a crane to the correct height in order to test perspective. It was great to see the sharp terminals catch the light, and the bronze coating looked nice. The test was a success and 3D printing could begin.
Construction of the new university library is well on its way, though at the time of this writing (September 2023) not much of the new building is visible.
Simone van den Brink Huisvestingsontwikkeling, Alex ter Haar Projectmanager, Matthieu Lommen conservator Allard Pierson and Irene Zwiep Amsterdam Institute of Humanities Research.
Blender visualisations and 3D consultant: Lars van Blokland
Harry van den Berg and Ana Carmen Gutiérrez Narvarte were the MVSA architects for this project. More details about their work, including the other buildings at the MVSA website.
Nedcam in Heerenveen is responsible for the production of the letters. More details on the production at the Nedcam website Please note: the big render on the Nedcam website does not show the final type design or layout.