It could have been imperial Trajan. Or elegant Bodoni. Or generic Helvetica. But the search for the ideal typeface to be inscribed on the Freedom Tower cornerstone at the World Trade Center site ended simply, in Gotham.
Gov. George E. Pataki said in his Fourth of July cornerstone speech that the 20-ton block came from the Adirondacks, “the bedrock of our state.” He did not note that its 26 words were set in a typeface steeped in local origin, developed four years ago at the Hoefler Type Foundry in the Cable Building, at Broadway and Houston Street, by Tobias Frere-Jones, a native New Yorker.
The typeface, Gotham, deliberately evokes the blocky, no-nonsense, unselfconscious architectural lettering that dominated the streetscape from the 1930’s through the 1960’s in building names, neon signs, hand-lettered advertisements and lithographed posters.
Its chief inspiration, in fact, were the letters spelling out PORT AUTHORITY BUS TERMINAL over the terminal’s Eighth Avenue doors. So the circle comes to a close, since the trade center site is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey…
Michael Gericke, a partner in the Pentagram studio, which designed the cornerstone with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects of the Freedom Tower, said Gotham “didn’t look like something that was created yesterday and would be gone tomorrow.”
“It seems like it’s part of the larger urban environment,” he said. “It seems, in a way, that it’s always been there.”
Another Pentagram partner, Michael Bierut, likened Gotham to the Manhattan street grid. “It doesn’t show individual authorship,” he said, “but it shows a character you wouldn’t find anywhere else.”
The letters that are Gotham’s progenitors—BAR, PIER 40, DINER, PRIMARY SCHOOL 142—appear almost as if they had not been designed at all. The strokes have a uniform width. The forms, like the circular O’s, seem to have been dictated by pure geometry. There are no embellishments like serifs and spurs, barbs and beaks.
Mr. Frere-Jones, 33, who grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Heights, found himself drawn to these forms. And he had the chance to explore them in 2000, when Hoefler was commissioned by GQ magazine to design a new font. In 2002, after a period in which GQ had the exclusive right to use Gotham, it was made more widely available. It now comes in 16 varieties…
Ann Harakawa, a principal in the Two Twelve Associates design firm, whose office at 90 West Street was destroyed on 9/11, said the typeface was simple, legible and, given its New York provenance, very apt. “The idea of it being slightly ambiguous is interesting,” she said, “because no one has any idea of what’s going to come.”