- Blueprints for Babylon: Modernist Mapping of the London Underground 1913–1939
Beneath the pavement, sunk in the earth, hollow drains lined with yellow light for ever conveyed them this way and that, and large letters upon enamel plates represented in the underworld the parks, squares, and circuses of the upper. “Marble Arch—Shepherd’s Bush”—to the majority the Arch and the Bush are eternally white letters upon a blue ground. Only at one point—it may be Acton, Holloway, Kensal Rise, Caledonian Road—does the name mean shops where you buy things, and houses, in one of which, down to the right, where the pollard trees grow out of the paving stones, there is a square curtained window, and a bedroom.—Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)1
Eric Hobsbawm once made the startling claim that the most original work of avant-garde art produced in Britain between the wars was Harry Beck’s Tube Map.2 In an essay published in the book Imagined Londons, David L. Pike has examined the basis for this polemical assertion and concluded that “By simplifying the complex network of urban railway lines into a visually pleasing and easily legible map bearing little or no relation to either the experiential or the physical metropolis of London, Beck codified a particularly modernist conception of space.”3 In Pike’s view, the Tube Map fits into a genealogy of modernist space that originated in the mid-nineteenth century with the blue, red, and yellow lines Baron Haussmann imposed upon a map of Paris. “Such projects undertook, in the physical space of Paris, to control the [End Page 735] chaotic, ungraspable reality of the modern city through color-coding, straight lines, and diagonal cuts.” (Pike 104–105) Beck’s Map achieved this same goal but in a manner symptomatic of the history of such schemes in London, through its impact upon the representational, rather than physical, space of London. The tangle of sub-surface railways, tube railways, and light railways, built at multiple times and at various levels, had been flattened out and homogenised in a totalising vision of what French sociologist Henri Lefebvre termed abstract space, that is to say, the conception of space as a coherent, homogenous whole, which can consequently be bought and exchanged in the same manner as any other commodity: “Abstract space is a planned and organised space, thought rather than lived, and known conceptually rather than directly experienced.” (Pike, 107) But while modernist space is typically understood to have had no place for the individual, everyday contingency of the city dweller, the Tube Map can be seen to have perpetuated the possibility of individual reverie even as it constrained its limits—and according to Pike it is to this factor that the phenomenal popularity of the Tube Map is to be attributed.4 “While it makes the tube into a closed system, the map also retains the possibility of such an infinite journey through an alternate London space”(Pike, 112). In concluding, Pike speculates that this freedom was facilitated by the primary feature borrowed from its failed predecessors: the bright colours that remain a Victorian trace in Beck’s modernist work of art. Pike continues:
Click for larger view
View full resolution
They are, after all, what attracts the eye no matter how many times one has seen it; they are what inspires the reverie that makes the tedious minutiae of each ride bearable; they [End Page 736] are, in the end, what remains utopian about this space, just as it is the primary colors in Mondrian’s grids that make the space of his paintings mystical as well as rationalizing, and just as, conversely, it was the grayness of postwar architecture that came to epitomize the intolerability of its architectural uniformity.(Pike, 112–113)
Thus, in Pike’s analysis, the Tube Map owes its success to a variation on mainstream modernist practice—the conservation of an oneiric pleasure in an otherwise abstract, rationally organised space. But the Tube Map is, of course, merely one artefact among many to result from the history...