Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape

November 8, 2020

Text on the exhibition Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape on view at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. The exhibition, curated by Gilermo Zuaznabar, was on view until February 28, 2021.


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Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape exhibition. Image courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape is the first major international retrospective devoted to the German graphic designer Otl Aicher (1922–1991), featuring more than 200 works from the HfG-Archiv Ulm (Archive of the Ulm School of Design, Germany). Highlights include 80 never-before-seen drawings from his project for the Metro Bilbao, as well as a dozen drawings and photographs from the Norman Foster Foundation archive, the outcome of the encounters between Foster and Aicher.

This is also the first time the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum is presenting a monographic exhibition on design and it does so to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Metro Bilbao that opened on November 11, 1995. Metro Bilbao is one of the essential projects in Aicher’s career, a paradigmatic example of design that is capable of changing the city—in this case, from below—and the way its inhabitants perceive it. The exhibition features many unpublished drawings that Otl Aicher made when designing the Metro’s image. Both the infrastructure designed by Norman Foster and the corporate identity designed by Aicher are perfect examples of the merger of design, urban planning, and architecture. Aicher viewed design as a means of economically and culturally transforming society.

Your can read more here about the design of Metro Bilbao, published in our Bilbao issue.

Other celebrated drawings by Aicher are also on display, such as those for Braun, the 1972 Munich Olympics, Bulthaup, and Isny Allgäu, in addition to unpublished materials for his architecture projects for Rotis, a former agricultural complex which he turned into a residence and work site.

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Otl Aicher teaching at the HfG Ulm, c. 1955. Photograph by Hans G. Conrad courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

About Otl Aicher

Otl Aicher was one of the most influential European designers of the second half of the twentieth century. He, along with his wife Inge Scholl and artist and architect Max Bill, founded the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (HfG, Ulm School of Design) in 1953, an institution he directed with Tomás Maldonado and Hans Gugelot between 1956 and 1958, and by himself from 1962 to 1964. Both the HfG Ulm and the Ulmer Volkshochschule (Ulm Community College), also founded by Aicher and Scholl in 1946, were founded as cultural acts to repair the damage caused by the Nazi regime to German and European citizens.

Aicher is heir to the Central European graphic design tradition, which uses grids to structure the space. He applied this system freely, subverting the geometric order when the composition did not require it to generate a structured yet visually active design. The combination of rigor and freedom, along with the intellectual development fueled by the web of relationships he forged with intellectuals around the Ulm school like Josef Albers and Alexander Kluge, made him an exceptional designer.

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Norman Foster and Otl Aicher in London, c. 1990. Photography by Hansjörg Brucklacher courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Starting in the 1980s, Aicher worked with Norman Foster on publications of his works, who considered him “a legendary figure in the world of design.” As a result of this relationship, around 1988–1989 he was entrusted with the design of the corporate image of the Metro Bilbao. The project was grounded in architecture, and both the city and his inquiry into Basque culture and landscape are the elements that defined its communication system. This and the projects he carried out for the 1972 Munich Olympics and Bulthap comprise the core works in Aicher’s career.

Norman Foster on Otl Aicher

Exhibition organization

Gehen in der Wüste (Walking in the Desert)
Gehen in der Wüste (1986) tells the story of Otl Aicher’s walking journey around the Sahara. The photographs accompanying his texts reveal such beautiful landscapes that one can sense that the experiences he had on the journey must have made it a “total” experience for Aicher. In a conference given in 2012 Yves Zimmermann clarified that the text reveals that his relationship with the environment is so intense that he cannot stop thinking about what he needed in each situation: shoes, clothing, materials, protection, food, drink. Aicher subjected everything he was wearing or had in his backpack to rigorous scrutiny, since his life may have even depended on the usefulness and efficacy of each object, utensil, or piece of clothing.

William of Ockham
Along with Professor Wilhelm Vossenkuhl, in 1986 Aicher developed a unique project: an exhibition on William of Ockham. According to Aicher, Ockham was one of the first thinkers and designers of modern science. Thanks to him, thought “abandoned abstraction and turned towards concretion.”

As Neus Moyano explains in the exhibition catalogue, Aicher drew inspiration from medieval painting and Gothic architecture. Each panel repeats the same structural and semantic order: four bands organizing the narrative. Axonometric and isometric projections are used to represent cities and landscapes from above, the same aerial perspective Aicher used when preparing the Bilbao Metro project.

In August 1960, Otl Aicher designed an industrial construction system. The document is comprised of 91 plates which are illustrated with freehand drawings and texts typed on parchment paper. Even though this was a personal undertaking, it was drafted in such painstaking detail that we can still assess and appreciate its construction. The system is based on the Braun pavilions that he and Hans Gugelot designed in 1955 for indoor fair venues and in 1959 for outdoors areas. Aicher most likely developed it to offer it to Braun executives, who at that time were considering building a housing development, the Siedlung Roter Hang, for its employees in Frankfurt.

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Braun Pavilion. Frankfurt System, 1959. Photography by Hans G. Conrad. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

After the HfG Ulm closed in 1968 and the looming end of the projects for the 1972 Munich Olympics, in 1970 Otl Aicher was looking for a new place for his family residence and workplace. The designer found the Rotis rural mill house, with its multiple uses, to be everything he had envisioned for his future enterprise. He wanted to gather professionals from different disciplines in the field of visual communication there. In Rotis, Aicher remodeled the mill and stables (1972) and designed six new industrial-looking constructions: his own studio and the photography workshop (1972), the power plant (1973), the garage (1978), the small cabin as a sculpture atelier (1985) and a studio (1976) which he never built and remained in the design stage.

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Otl Aicher’s studio and power plant, c. 1984. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Rotis is also the name of the font designed by Aicher in 1988 based on the new corporate design for ERCO. With it, he sought to build a bridge between the Grotesque and Roman fonts. Thus, the font has two intermediate styles: semi-Grotesque and semi-Roman. For Metro Bilbao, he used a 65-font Rotis semi-Grotesque (half-bold) or a 55 font (regular).

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Rotis Sans Serif 55 Roman. Available from Linotype.

Isny Ällgau
In 1979, Otl Aicher received the commission to design promotional materials for the tourism bureau in the Ällgau region of Germany, where Rotis is located. He prepared an album with 80 black-and-white drawings showing different outings around the region. The series is comprised of sketches of people, animals, plants, buildings, and landscapes. Tourist promotion via black-and-white graphics reveals Aicher’s radicalness, but it proved to be an effective system, since the drawings neatly capture the landscape and culture of Ällgau. Reducing the drawings to their essence enabled them to be used in different formats over the course of several decades. The black and white of the clean surfaces encouraged viewers to imagine the colors of the landscapes and objects, leaving a strong impression both on the retina and in the memory.

Metro Bilbao
In March 1988, Norman Foster won the competition to build the underground of Bilbao. Even though the Metro’s sign appeared on the panels in the proposal, once the competition was awarded, Otl Aicher created a “complementary study” to define its design in the fall of that same year. It is comprised of 200 plates which graphically analyze the history, heraldry, culture, and forms of the Bilbao metropolitan area, as well as different handwritten reflections. For the exhibition of this unpublished work, the curator has chosen 59 plates divided into four groups.

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Otl Aicher (1922-1991) Metro Bilbao. Complementary Study 3. Bird’s eye view and ground view of the Metro. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

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Otl Aicher (1922-1991) Metro Bilbao. Complementary Study 3. Bird’s eye view and ground view of the Metro. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

In addition to their exceptional graphic quality, the study is a good example of the designer’s working method; to define signage and information system for the Metro, the designer made a diagnosis stemming from the city’s economy, society, and culture in which his work would act. He conducted this process with clear awareness of the economic, social, and cultural repercussions that the final design would have.

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Otl Aicher (1922-1991) Metro Bilbao. Complementary Study 4. Conclusion, 1988. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

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Otl Aicher (1922-1991) Metro Bilbao. Complementary Study 4. Conclusion, 1988. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

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Otl Aicher (1922-1991) Metro Bilbao. Complementary Study 2. The region, 1988. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

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Otl Aicher in Rotis during the Metro Bilbao project. Photography by Hansjörg Brucklacher courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

In 1962, the civil aviation company hired the E5 development group at HfG Ulm, led by Otl Aicher and Hans Gugelot, to update its corporate image. The project included the significant elements of Lufthansa: logos, signage, stationary, tickets, tableware, uniforms, etc. Between 1974 and 1984, Aicher’s office, by then in Rotis, also designed the company’s promotional publications and posters. The outcome of that partnership is the catalogue Im flug über Europa [Flying over Europe]. The publication is comprised of bird’s-eye views of cities and landscapes that celebrate the continent’s history and culture. Aerial photography is a resource that Aicher also used in the Metro Bilbao project (1988) to both represent and analyze the old city.

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Otl Aicher. Gruppe 5 of the HfG: Study 1400/0. Lufthansa corporate identity, October 1962. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

1972 Munich Olympics
In 1967, Otl Aicher won the competition to design the communication system of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Both the organizing committee and the designer himself sought to offer a new image of West Germany. This cheerful coloring based on extraordinarily dynamic figures, which avoid vertical and horizontal lines, with photographs of “messy” curved lines and oblique directions, was used to convey a vivid image of the event and the country. The colors were taken from the Olympic emblem, but Aicher avoided using red and black, which, along with white and gold, were the dominant colors in German society in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

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1972 Munich Olympics pictograms. Prosport, Die Spiele: The Official Report of the Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXth Olympia Munich 1972 Summer Olympic Games. Vol.1: The Organisation, 99. Source: Bibliothèque du CIO / IOC Library.

On commission from ERCO, between 1975 and 1978, Otl Aicher developed the system of pictograms designed for the 1972 Munich Olympics into a signage system for buildings and public spaces, still marketed today by the company. The Munich pictographs were developed in 1967 based on Matsuri Katsumi’s work for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Katsumi and Aicher are, in turn, indebted to the Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik [Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics] developed by Otto Neurath, Marie Reidemeister, and Gerd Arntz. This method was designed to convey data and complex concepts on the economy and sociology to the less educated citizens, with figures called Isotype figures, halfway between sign and picture.

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Otl Aicher (1922-1991). ERCO logo, 1974-1976. Museum Ulm / HfG-Archiv. Courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

In the early 1980s, kitchen manufacturer Gerd Bulthaup went to Rotis to commission Otl Aicher to design the corporate image of his small company. Before beginning the design, Aicher suggested conducting a study on what a kitchen is, with the goal of understanding what the new kitchen in the second half of the twentieth century should be like. He drew country kitchens, medieval kitchens, kitchens from bourgeois haute cuisine restaurants, and Ernst May’s kitchen in Frankfurt, as well as the items and fabrics used in them. Today, Bulthaup’s celebrated kitchens are the outcome of this research, which was compiled in the book Die Küche zum Kochen: Das Ende einer Architekturdoktrin (1982) [The Kitchen for Cooking: The End of an Architectural Doctrine].

Both the HfG Ulm (Ulm School of Design) and the Ulmer Volkshochschule (Ulm Community College) were founded as educational and cultural actions aimed at combatting the damage caused to German and European societies by the Nazi regime. Aicher viewed design as a means of economically and culturally transforming society. He developed a design morality which he also transferred to his political commitment via his support of the German Social Democratic party and different actions in favor of ecology and nonviolence.

Sophie and Hans Scholl
On February 22, 1943, the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, along with Christoph Probst, were sentenced to the guillotine for high treason against the fatherland in an extraordinarily summary trial. Their crime: combatting the vast power of the Third Reich with their bare hands and a cyclostyle, by reproducing and distributing proclamations against Hitler and his wars. The Scholls and Probst were part of the resistance group Die Weiße Rose [The White Rose], which had been founded at the University of Munich in 1942.

Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher looked for a way of honoring the memory of her murdered siblings and colleagues with the understanding that there is no more effective “monument” than educating the citizens who had grown up under the Nazi ideology and who had mostly been complicit in their harassment and executions. This, in 1946 they founded the Ulmer Volkshochschule and in 1951 the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm.

In 1985, Otl Aicher built a small cabin in Rotis somewhat apart from the studios and from his house, where he secretly resumed practicing sculpture, which he had abandoned in 1946. There, he shaped the busts of Sophie and Hans Scholl on August 26, 1991, just a few days before his death.

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Workshop with Otl Aicher and a team of Metro Bilbao at Building 17 in Rotis, c. 1990. Photography by Hansjörg Brucklacher courtesy of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Online lectures

December 4, 2020
“Otl Aicher: Was ist Bilbao? Metro Bilbao Project”
Lecture by Gilermo Zuaznabar about the complementary study that Aicher undertook between 1988 and 1991, which reveals both his vision of the city and the solutions he proposed.

December 11, 2020
“Otl Aicher: World, Life and Design”
Lecture by Gilermo Zuaznabar where he outlined the morality Aicher developed as a result of his commitment to society. Through his profession, the designer helped transform the life of its residents, the users of his designs and German society. The lecture illustrates this crucial aspect of Aicher’s professional career and life.

Exhibition Credits

Curator: Gilermo Zuaznabar
Coordinator: Carolina Martínez Pascual
Installation team: Gilermo Zuaznabar
Rotis redrawings and model: Ángel García, Carlos Gonzalvo (Universitat Rovira i Virgili), Juan Fernando Ródenas (Universitat Rovira i Virgili), and Gilermo Zuaznabar
Conservation and restoration treatments: Mercedes Briones
Photographic reproduction: Laboratorio para el arte by Estudios Durero
Graphic design: Fernando Gutiérrez Studio
Organized by: Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
Sponsor: Metro Bilbao
Dates: November 5, 2020-February 28, 2021