Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The most famous transport diagram in the world is Harry Beck’s London Underground map. People who have never stepped foot on a tube train will recognise it immediately; people from other countries of the world will see its forms in the diagrams of their own metro systems. However much one might hate the sweaty, grubby Northern Line, one cannot resist its black, hemipterous trail across London; how its tail rises from Morden, its bloated body reclining over zone 1, its feelers stretching under Finchley and Golders Green.

As we all know, the London Underground map began life very differently. As the Metropolitan Line extended into embryonic suburbia, the need to design a diagram which could contain stations up to 60km apart became apparent. A 1925 pocket map demonstrated the challenge starkly: interchanges are vague, arrows vainly try to show extensions, and the whole thing is thoroughly cluttered.

In 1931 Harry Beck had only recently been made redundant from his job as an engineering draughtsman for London Underground. Nevertheless, he began to sketch out a design which, by 1933, had developed into a diagram still largely in use today.

In his book Metro Maps of the World, Mark Ovenden notes that at first Beck's diagram was hardly championed by London Underground: “The masterpiece ... was diffidently issued by a sceptical management in 1933. [But] the sheer simplicity of the diagram ... gained instant public approval. By using an octagonal grid it allowed lines to meet at right angles. In describing the relationship between lines, interchanges and stations, it gives you all the information you actually need when travelling underground; which stations follow which and where lines meet.”

Beck’s map is, in a way, the perfect example of modernist art: it fulfils a function, and its graphic appeal derives from its functionality. It is more aesthetically pleasing than its sprawling predecessors because it uses techniques (erasure of above-ground features, distortions of distances, straightening of lines, regularity of angles) which solve the problems of urban navigation. It has created a new reality for us, so that the earlier to-scale representations of the Tube just look wrong. Never mind what goes on above ground – this is what life looks like below ground.

Beck eventually achieved the recognition his diagram deserved. But spare a thought for the German draughtsman who Ovenden suggests may have made the first “brave step into pure geometry” to illustrate the Berlin S- and U-Bahns. A 1931 diagram in Ovenden’s book pre-dates Beck’s use of horizontals, verticals and 45 degree angles. This 1931 diagram (which I can’t find on the web) distorts the circle of the S-Bahn as a hub around and into which the lines of the U-Bahn flow. Stations are evenly spread out, their names neatly stacked in horizontal lines. It is not known who drew the 1931 S-Bahn, but they should sit alongside Beck as the original cartographers of 20th century city transport.


Modernism is seen by the parochial as a particularly European sensibility: a fanciful notion of the sort with which equable Englishmen needn’t trouble themselves. But as we have seen, Beck’s common-sense diagram is a superlative modernist work. It is doubtful whether Beck (and his German counterpart) was familiar with Eight Red Rectangles or Suprematism or Black Square, but Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings derive from the same vision as the Underground maps: that forms, rather than objects, should take precedence.

The development of photography in the 19th century had forced artists to look beyond objective representation, and Suprematism took Cubism’s interest in abstraction to its logical conclusion. Malevich later recalled:

In the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field. The critics and, along with them, the public sighed, "Everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert .... Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!"

By using a limited palette of shapes and colours to paint pure forms, Malevich strived for an art of "pure feeling" which went beyond the banalities of representation. Malevich lamented that "the square seemed incomprehensible and dangerous to the critics and the public ... and this, of course, was to be expected". But some early critics recognised the revolutionary impact of Suprematism. Ernst Kallai wrote of Malevich's work in the 1927 Great Berlin Art Exhibition, "it is quite difficult to imagine what further development in painting is possible beyond what has been achieved."

This is certainly the impression I got when I looked round the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year. We went on a Saturday afternoon, having spent the previous evening at the Duchamp / Man Ray / Picabia show at the Tate Modern. Aside from the Surrealists' dream-visions of psychic space, it does not appear that art has advanced beyond Suprematism and Dadaism. With no political programme to pin its flag to, the postmodern art world is immersed in an endless rehash of old questions and debates. Our age is not so much postmodern times as premodern; what we need is another Malevich or Duchamp to wake us up.

Suprematism rendered the specialist artist irrelevant, and its legacy lies in the aesthetics of diagrams, pictograms and practical graphic design. Malevich suggested that "the appropriate means of representation is always the one which gives fullest possible expression to feeling as such, and which ignores the familiar appearance of objects." Harry Beck unwittingly translated this for Mass Transit Railway passengers: "If you're going underground, why do you need bother about geography? Connections are the thing".

Almost all metro maps use Beck's clean, geometric model, and almost all are informed by the "liberating non-objectivity" of Suprematism. Malevich's own home town of Kiev has a diagram representing "the existing three line system common across the entire former Soviet bloc". Moscow's diagram does away with lines in favour of "beading" - i.e. just showing the stations and interchanges. The Buenos Aires and Montreal diagrams favour a black background. Rio is still able to illustrate its subway alongside the scenery of Sugarloaf Mountain and Ipanema beach. Along with graffiti, these diagrams are the most democratically consumed works of art on the planet.


Blogger owen hatherley said...

Great post. I know Mark Ovenden. He was in the Militant in the 80s in Southampton, and I was regularly babysat by him and his boyfriend Tony. Apparently I used to terrify them by sleepwalking. Met up with him a couple of years ago and he told us he'd done this book...

This really is the sort of stuff that gets me going. Bear in mind London Underground in the 1930s was 'a civilising influence' (according to Pevsner), a public sponsor of all things Modernist...see also the Johnston typeface, used since the 1910s and anticipating the Modernist fonts of the Bauhaus, Futura, etc; and the greatest legacy of the avant-garde in Britain is clearly this system... - which in turn is pictorially influenced by the simplified forms of Austrian Marxist polymath Otto Neurath's Isotype system. Far more a legacy of the avant-garde than any amount of Britart wankery.

4:11 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

According to the blurb, the young adolescent Mark's enthusiasm for maps was such that he designed a four-line Metro system for Milton Keynes at the age of 12!

Reading the wiki entry on the Johnston typeface, I see one of his students was Eric Gill, who adapted the font and used it as the basis for the famous Gill Sans font (now, for its sins, in fierce competition with Ariel to establish hegemony as the corporate font of Local Authorities up and down the land), which got its own exhibition in New York last autumn. Gill also designed and sculpted the eight Winds on St James's Park underground station.

5:19 PM  

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