Exhibition: Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2020-11-05 • 2021-04-05

Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape

The museum is presenting the first major international retrospective devoted to the German graphic designer Otl Aicher, with more than 200 works and projects 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 museum is presenting a monographic exhibition on design, an initiative which is part of the 25th anniversary of Metro Bilbao, on 11 November, a museum board member since 2001. Metro Bilbao is one of the essential projects in Aicher’s career which the museum now wishes to hold up as a paradigmatic example of design that is capable of changing the city—in this case, from underneath—and the way its inhabitants perceive it.

The show is a milestone among exhibitions on graphic design. 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Aicher are also on display, such as those for Braun, the 1972 Munich Olympics, Bulthaup and Isny Allgäu, in addition to unpublished materials for his architecture projects for Rotis, a former agricultural complex which he turned into a residence and work site.

Aicher is the 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 rigour and freedom, along with the intellectual development fuelled by the web of relationships he forged with intellectuals around the Ulm school like Josef Albers and Alexander Kluge, made him an exceptional designer.

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, in 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.

The exhibition is curated by Gilermo Zuaznabar, a researcher and professor in the field of Art and Architecture Theory at Rovira i Virgili University (Tarragona). He was also in charge of publishing the catalogue—issued in Basque, Spanish and English—an invaluable contribution on the figure of Otl Aicher and on European graphic design.

Otl Aicher (1922-1991)

Otl Aicher (1922–1991) is the most influential European designer from the second half of the 20th century. He, his wife, Inge Scholl, and the 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.

Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape shows, for the first time, much of the 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. Along with Metro Bilbao, other projects are also presented in which landscapes and architectures are the subjects of his work. We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Metro Bilbao by acknowledging the city's transformation dreamt up by this German designer in 1988.

Exhibition route

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 is wearing or has 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 mediaeval painting and Gothic architecture. Each panel repeats the same structural and semantic order: four bands organising 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 –on display– and in 1959 for outdoors areas. Aicher most likely developed it to offer it to Braun executives, who at that time were considering building in a housing development, the Siedlung Roter Hang, for its employees in Frankfurt.


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 remodelled 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 but just remained in the design stage.

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).

Isny Ällgau

In 1979, Otl Aicher received the commission to design promotional materials for the tourism bureau in the Ällgau region, 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 colours 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 contest to build the underground of Bilbao. Even though the Metro's sign appeared on the panels in the proposal, once the contest was awarded, Otl Aicher created a "complementary study" to define its design in the autumn of that same year. It is comprised of 200 plates which graphically analyse the history, heraldry, culture and forms of the Bilbao metropolitan area, as well as different handwritten reflections. For the exhibition of this unpublished work, we have chosen 59 plates divided into four groups.

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.


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 to analyse the old city.

1972 Munich Olympics

In 1967, Otl Aicher won the contest to design the communication system of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Both the organising committee and the designer himself sought to offer a new image of West Germany. This cheerful colouring 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 colours were taken from the Olympic emblem, but Aicher avoided using red and black, which, along with white and gold, were the dominant colours in German society in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the 1936 Berlin Olympics.


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.


In the early 1980s, a kitchen manufacturer 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 20th century should be like. He drew country kitchens, mediaeval 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 favour of ecology and nonviolence.

Sophie and Hans Scholl

On 22 February 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 honouring 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 practising sculpture, which he had abandoned in 1946. There, he shaped the busts of Sophie and Hans Scholl on 26 August 1991, just a few days before his death.


Online lectures

Gillermo Zuaznabar, exhibition curator, will deliver two lectures on different aspects of Otl Aicher’s work.

The lecture “otl aicher: was ist bilbao? metro bilbao project” will present the complementary study that Aicher undertook between 1988 and 1991, which reveals both his vision of the city and the solutions he proposed.

Secondly, “otl aicher: world, life and design” will outline 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.

On our YouTube channel starting 4 and 11 December, respectively.


Content of exhibition: Otl Aicher. Metro Bilbao. Architecture and Landscape