Monday, 21 January 2013

Anti-locality: the tube map Publicity about the 150th anniversary of the London underground has drawn me back to Harry Beck’s famous 1933 map (1931 draft here) which abandoned the insistence on geographical accuracy in favour of ease of interpretation and use. This Atlantic article shows the evolution of the map over the century and a half, clearly confirming the paradigm shift that he accomplished (more here). It’s refreshing to talk about 150 years of urban history without being drawn into talking about ‘how everything’s changed’. The tube map has changed little in the 80 years since Beck’s was adopted, but we can use the previous maps to try to imagine the current level of complexity if it had not been. The fact that his contribution was unsolicited and took two years to be accepted is a wee lesson on sources of creativity for managers everywhere, although largely wasted on most of them of course. More useful perhaps is the opportunity it gives us to reflect on how universally-applied maps relate to the physical reality perceived around us. Beck’s reconfiguration of this reality is not always helpful. For instance, people unfamiliar with London might well get on at Charing Cross to travel to Embankment; and emerging into the light discover themselves within one or two hundred metres of the point at which they went underground, having travelled three sides of a buried vertical square. The point Beck’s map highlights for me is that underground there are few landmarks, and our bearings are vulnerable at best. Here we are extraordinarily dependent on the information supplied to us by signage and which we cannot confirm or augment except by correspondence with our fellow human beings, all strangers. As an environment it is thus an exquisite anti-locality (I won’t say non-place). The first sense in which you are here, by which you locate yourself, is because of a huge layered construct of information. You are not at Holland Park or Parsons Green or Chalk Farm, you are somewhere unrecognisable way below the surface, or believe yourself to be. Having good reason to trust the information that you may or may not have absorbed, you let yourself be guided through tunnels and up moving stairways where you sense light and cross into the world you can confirm as Holland Park or Parsons Green or Chalk Farm. There you re-adopt your sense of being-in-place, intact and in perfect working order. What a marvel.

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