Sunday, August 5, 2018
London Underground By Design Paperback – January 18, 2013 by Mark Ovenden (Particular Books)
This year is the sesquicentennial of the first subway line in London, the grandfather of all subway systems. There have been countless technological changes since then, and the system has become huge with connections all over the city and outside of it. The changes in technology are a mere side issue within _London Underground by Design_ (Penguin Books) by subway enthusiast Mark Ovenden. His subject is the look and design of trains, stations, maps, signage, and more. It is a comprehensive survey with capsule biographies of the planners and designers through the decades, and it fittingly has hundreds of pictures covering all aspects of the system's design. People take over a billion trips on the system every year; engines and cars do the work, of course, but Ovenden shows that matters of design are far from superficial, and that they make the system work more efficiently. It isn't a new lesson, that good design makes for an esthetic appeal as well as increasing job effectiveness, but it is vibrantly displayed here.
The Tube system grew from the first underground run by the Metropolitan Railway, and Ovenden suggests that even then there were some marks of a coherent style. Coherence was not a characteristic of signage, one of the most important aspects of design covered here. The sans-serif letters on signs had little unity, and as shown in many pictures here, were overwhelmed by commercial bills and posters. Everything changed when Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the Underground and a hero in these pages for his emphasis on efficient design, commissioned Edward Johnston in 1913 to come up with a typeface to be used throughout the system. Johnston's creation, now known as Johnston Sans, has been a foundation of Underground design ever since. It can be spotted by its perfectly circular O and the slight fancy of a diagonal square dot over the i and the j. Graphic design is on display perhaps most famously in the tube maps, made schematic rather than geographical by a cartographic amateur Harry Beck in 1933. Beck used a symbolic cartography, with train lines and even the Thames flowing horizontally, vertically, or at 45 degree angles only. Not only has his map been used ever since, other subway systems around the world have drawn themselves using Beck's style as a guide. Like any sensible firm, the Underground has paid special attention to its advertisements, the posters set around the station. Reproduced here are many classic ones, posters that are bestsellers at the London Transport Museum; people are ready to frame these and hang them on their walls, which is not what usually happens to advertisements. The largest review of station buildings presented here are the suburban ones built from 1930 to 1945. They are inspired by buildings that Pick and his architect Charles Holden saw on a tour of Europe. Though Holden jokingly referred to them as "brick boxes with concrete lids," they are rationalist in style and have handsome towers and rotundas, with art deco lamps and seating. Included here are pictures of the new Canary Wharf station, inspired by the same "rationalist" school. It is all glass and brushed metal, and it looks futuristic and sleek, fit for the twenty-first century.
There are sections here on the history of the roundel, the famous blue bar over a red ring that has become the symbol of London Transport, and on the "wordmark" of the enlarged initial and final letter in "UndergrounD." There are descriptions of intelligent signage experiments, where paper signs were tested and found functional before permanent enamel signs were installed. There are many descriptions of how design contributed to "wayfinding," scientific studies of passenger flow and decision making by passengers as they sought the right trains. There are pictures to show how the cars themselves have evolved, or how particular stations are decorated. The book represents in a fascinating way how after 150 years and revolutionary technological changes, the Underground presents a confident corporate identity because it has achieved a useful unity of design in many of its diverse enterprises.