The Atlas of Solitude

The new publication by the Akademie, Solitude Atlas, will be released on the occasion of its 25th anniversary as part of the Sommerfest (the Akademie’s annual summer festival) on July 18, 2015. The 145 participating authors, all former or current fellows of the Akademie since 1990, were invited to hand in a subjective text about the cities they are living in. Assembling letters, poems, essays, and illustrations from almost 100 cities and 48 countries all over the world, the anthology will offer a personal as well as a global insight of the world. In preparation for the upcoming book release, the initiator, the coordinator, and the designer of the book reveal their perspective on the Solitude Atlas.

Marte Kräher: Mr. Joly, the Solitude Atlas is this year’s special book project. What makes this publication special for you?

Jean-Baptiste Joly: Indeed, the Atlas is something very special for me, and I understood this two months ago while writing the first draft for its foreword. To my own surprise, everything I wanted to put in it didn’t fit with the rhetoric of an official foreword written in the name of a cultural institution because it was much too personal. The Solitude Atlas summarizes the essence of what I have learned in 26 years (yes, 26, not 25; I started as founding director on January 1, 1989) at my Solitude desk. This knowledge deeply transformed my way of seeing and understanding the world. Let me explain it from (again) a very personal experience: As I read the international pages of my (French) newspaper each day in the early nineties, I began to identify news from cities all over the world with the Solitude fellows I knew from there: Reading about Johannesburg, I thought of Ivan; reading about Belgrade, of Kazimir; about Stockholm, of Johanna; about Yaoundé, of Félix; about Sao Paulo, of Ligia, etc. By reading in this manner, any news from any city in the world became more and more a personal matter. Last year while thinking about the publication that would best represent 25 years of work at Akademie Solitude, I had this in mind. Thanks to all our friends who agreed to contribute, this idea became real. The Atlas says nothing about the Akademie, nothing about the work, the staff or about me, but it says everything about the exceptional experience one could have in all the years working for Akademie Solitude. For this reason, it is the most personal publication I have ever done.

MK: In terms of the book’s production, Elisa, can you reveal your secret for coordinating almost 150 authors around the world?

Elisa Calosi: If we can call it a secret, it is definitely to respect the deadlines! All the participants in the project – and I’m not just thinking of the almost 150 authors, but also all the translators and editors as well as Mr. Joly, Phil Baber, Claudia Gehre, and the staff of the Akademie – come from different cultural backgrounds and habits. And consequently each person’s perception of time, their understanding of a deadline, their language, their way of communicating with each other were different. Being strict with deadlines, but at the same time flexible enough to adjust to everybody’s needs was definitely a challenge. After a while, I automatically knew which person I should contact by email; which one only by telephone; and which one, for example, I could immediately reach through social media. I learned to estimate how long an answer would take and so, after navigating through this huge amount of virtual messages, materials, texts, and images, we reached the end and the Solitude Atlasbecame a reality.

MK: Phil, what inspired you for the design of the book?

Phil Barber: The diversity of content was the biggest challenge here; A five-line poem had to sit just as well as an 800-word prose piece in two languages, incorporating images, captions, and footnotes. Yet, for me, this diversity is part of what makes the Solitude Atlas such a compelling project. It’s surely uncommon to find such a variety of writing compiled in a single volume. And so it was this, if anything, that »inspired« the design – or rather, how I approached the design. I wanted a structure both rigorous and free, that would unify the content without nullifying its multiplicity. Once this structure and its parameters were established, the pages, in a sense, designed themselves.

Otherwise, I spent a fair amount of time looking at old atlases and maps. This led me to a typeface called Römisch, about which I could find almost no information other than that it was designed specifically for the lettering of maps in the early twentieth century by an organization called Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kartographische. It’s a peculiar typeface with some wonderfully idiosyncratic details – the lowercase »g,« for example. As a nod to traditional map typography, I used it throughout the Atlas for all editorial content – folios, running heads, title pages, etc.

The contributions make use of almost 20 languages and several non-Latin alphabets, including Cyrillic, Greek, Persian, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese. My choice of primary typeface, Helvetica World, was largely determined by this linguistic diversity; there simply aren’t many type families that can handle such a range of languages. That said, my use of Helvetica for an atlas (albeit an unconventional atlas) is not without precedent; many of the modern – say, post-1960s – atlases I looked at employ Helvetica in place of the more old-fashioned Römisch.

Another, implicit, influence on the design, likewise inspired by the multi-lingual content, was sixteenth and seventeenth century polyglot bibles – Brian Walton’s nine-language parallel translation of 1657, for example, which I had the pleasure of handling at the British Library a few years ago. There is, perhaps, a trace of Walton’s Polyglot in the densely typeset, multi-column pages of the Solitude Atlas.