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Of Maps and Modernism

Sandy Ikeda

This year, for the first time since 1979, New York City has revamped its subway map.  A quick glance shows a change in the background tinge from light tan to light green – most pleasant.  To my relief, however, on closer inspection nothing essential has changed from the last version.  Thank goodness it still doesn’t look anything like the map of London’s Underground.

London’s map has been touted as the path-breaking paradigm of subway maps, the object of widespread acclaim and imitation.  Indeed, most major cities’ transit systems have adopted the map’s efficient symmetry, which was created by Harry Beck back in 1931 during the heyday of high modernism.

Here it is (pdf).

It’s easy to see why it has won praise.  It’s beautiful, looking like a two-dimensional version of a uranium molecule or the lattice of some fantastic crystal.  The same could be said for the maps of the underground systems of Paris and Tokyo.

It’s about Usefulness

As you’ve probably already guessed, however, I don’t like it.  And it’s not about aesthetics.  Here’s the problem:

I’m just one person, of course (although here’s another guy who seems to agree with me), but when I’m in London I find myself constantly frustrated when I try to get from place to place using that map.  The problem is that I need two maps: the Underground map to tell me how to get from, say, Paddington to Notting Hill Gate, and a street map to tell me exactly where the heck Notting Hill Gate is in relation to Paddington.  The former abstracts from so much street-level detail that, unless you’re already familiar with the layout of London, the map, rather increasing the efficiency of travel via mass transit, actually makes it more cumbersome.

New York City’s subway map on the other hand, while it’s no substitute for a detailed street map if you’re looking for a particular address, at least gets you in the ball park (and I mean Camden Yards, not Comerica Park).

Have a look.

In other words, you can tell that when you exit the station at Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall in Lower Manhattan, that it’s a reasonable walk (east and a bit south) to “Ground Zero” and the former World Trade Center.  The older version actually had some streets indicated, which would make navigation even easier, but it’s still less perplexing than London’s map.

Unlike the London map with its sharp angles and clean almost geologic geometry, New York’s map looks strikingly like the circulatory system of a living organism with its curves, seemingly arbitrary intersections, and uneven gaps.

The Deeper Point

In a sense, it may seem silly to criticize a map for being abstract, since, well, that’s what maps are supposed to do or else they would be useless.  But there is such a thing as being too abstract.  Maps should not abstract from what is essential to its purpose, which is to facilitate travel.

Part of the difference, of course, is due to the difference in the geography of London versus New York.  The latter is sited on the mainland of the United States plus three islands (Long, Staten, and Manhattan).  But Paris, and certainly Seattle, are also sited on islands, yet their maps are largely symmetric.

Again, it’s not just that some people prefer visual symmetry and elegance more than others, such as myself.  After all, de gustibus non est disputandum.  (Although, of course, the name of this column is Wabi-sabi – see my earlier post explaining the term.)

No, the deeper point is this: The unhelpful emphasis on the geometry of straight parallel lines in the case of the non-New York maps reflects, I believe, an attitude fundamentally at odds with a vigorous, dynamic city.  They sacrifice useful contextual information, in the form of the messy windiness of the actual subway lines beneath the sometimes chaotic-looking streets, in favor of a certain clean Euclidean aesthetic.  But as Jane Jacobs once said, a living city cannot be a work of art, the mere creation of a human mind, even if that mind is a genius.  A living city is, as F. A. Hayek might describe it, “the result of human action but not of human design.”

And in trying to impose a neat, efficient, symmetrical orderliness onto what the architect Rem Koolhaas aptly termed “delirious New York,” you would pay a high price in comprehension lost.  So the maps of London and the others ignore the inevitable but indispensable inefficiency and seeming chaos of a vibrant, creative city — and that’s why I don’t like them.

And, of course, I’m always getting lost when I use them.

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