Typing Out the Brooklyn Bridge

One reason to recreate world monuments in letters: to prove you can.
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Building the Brooklyn Bridge was hard enough. Rebuilding it out of typefaces has taken Cameron Moll, a designer and lecturer, an insane amount of dedication, meticulousness, and know-how. His typographically re-imagining of the storied New York landmark is the latest in a series of projects rendering world monuments in letters. Before the bridge, he tackled the Coliseum in Rome. “I did the first one, the Salt Lake Temple in Utah, basically as a challenge to see if I could convert something into type,” he told me in an email.

Moll is a digital expert who works with the latest image-making computer software—he uses Adobe Illustrator for these projects—but that doesn’t make the intricate workmanship much easier. “Some characters can be copied and pasted from previously completed sections, but probably 70 to 80 percent of the characters you see in the artwork are positioned, sized, and rotated one by one," he said. "It's extremely tedious, and I can do only about an hour at a time. My eyes literally go bonkers if I stretch it out any longer.”

At the end of every design session, Moll prints out his work to ensure its accuracy. “When the artwork hangs on someone's wall, it needs to looks great up close,” he wrote, “but it also has to look like the building or structure from far away. Printing allows me to inspect close-up details, as well as stand back and assess the piece from a distance.” 

Moll works with digitized fonts that are historically related to the periods of the structures. For the Brooklyn Bridge he used a Font Bureau typeface called Antique Condensed that's extremely close to a specimen of type from when the bridge was completed in 1883. For his rendering of the Coliseum, in addition to Frederic Goudy's version of the classic Trajan, Moll digitized several glyphs based on the work of Italian calligrapher M. Giovambattista Palatino, which are used throughout the artwork.

Moll has “screen-recorded” every hour he’s worked on the Brooklyn Bridge, “but I've yet to go back and tally those hours. With the Coliseum, I estimated about 250 hours of design time. I would imagine the Brooklyn Bridge required at least that much time,” he said. “However, I'd be willing to bet the time spent researching the project prior to designing surpasses the actual design time. I put an enormous amount of effort into ensuring I recreated the historic bridge properly. David McCulloch's The Great Bridge was immensely helpful, as was the advice from [type experts] like Jonathan Hoefler of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, and Robert Warner, who runs the Bowne & Co. museum today.”

Moll does not have a grand plan for his work. “I just love re-imagining structures in type,” he said. "Well, it's more of a love-hate relationship. I love the outcome. The arduous process, on the other hand, is hated at times. One of the best feelings through the Brooklyn Bridge project was sitting down at my desk for another design session ... and find[ing] myself thinking, ‘Wow. This looks incredible.’ It's rare that we designers find ourselves stunned by our own work, but that was the case often with this project.”

He said this labor-intensive effort has taught him a lot. “I walk away from a project like this so amazed at how much it took not just to architect each structure, but to construct it, too,” Moll told me. “John Roebling deserves credit as the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, but his son, Washington, deserves as much or more credit as the one who made thousands of decisions during its construction.”

Moll’s Bridge is a tribute to the men who died building the actual Brooklyn Bridge, and to many others who made the bridge possible and lived to tell about it. “And I think it's a tribute to all of us who create, too,” he said. “One of the best things ever said about the bridge was written the day it opened. ‘It so happens,’ wrote Montgomery Schuyler for Harper's Weekly on May 24, 1883, "that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.’ If John, Washington, and Emily Roebling could make something as beautiful and historic with something as mundane and utilitarian as a bridge, there's hope for the rest of us working on similarly mundane and utilitarian projects.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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