Public lettering 3: Manuel M Smith and the Sota Building

Although I grew up in the Basque Country, the first time I looked around in Bilbao in search of public lettering was on a visit with Catherine Dixon in 2013. Stephen Coles was right when he said that if you walk with Catherine you will see more. So we, well, probably she, spotted this architectural plaque in the high street of Bilbao. It was dark and we did not have a proper camera with us, so Catherine took a dark picture with her phone just as a reminder. I did go back, but, despite being one of ‘the most beautiful houses of the city’ somehow I missed it a few times.

The lettering belongs to the Casa Ramón de la Sota, or the Sota building (43–45 Gran Vía López de Haro, Bilbao) designed by Manuel María Smith in 1919 in a Basque regionalist style. The building was named after the person who commissioned it, Sir Ramón de la Sota —because of his participation in the WWI (he lent his ships to the British army) he was awarded the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire— entrepreneur and shipowner.

The architect, Manuel María Smith (1879– 1956), was a famous and prolific architect from Bilbao. He was a descendant of Irish immigrants, hence the surname, and his style was absolutely eclectic. He designed many kinds of buildings, from eccentric residences for the Basque bourgeoisie to stations and houses for the working classes. He introduced in Bilbao the English Style —the Old English and Queen Ann (see this research).

The lettering is as distinctive as the rest of the building, and completely different to anything —that I have seen— in its surroundings. Despite the sort of Basque regionalist style of the building, the lettering is completely far away from any form of Basque letterforms. It is also interesting in the sense that other buildings by Manuel María Smith are also signed with architectural plaques, although they are more modest. The building used lettering in four places, the architectural information Manuel María Smith’s name, and on top of the three main doors, in Basque: Indatzu Goikoa, Indatzu Erdikoa, and Indatzu Bekoa. Without a doubt, this topic deserves some proper research, beyond typing some names in Google.


A view of the building, image taken from the website from





Manuel M Smith plaque at the Carlton Hotel.

Pictures September 2017

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