London Underground Map
London Underground Map, 1992
WHY I LIKE IT…
Could a map given to me for free in the London Underground many years ago be my favourite plan? The first time I came to London I formed part of a herd of tourists from South America travelling around Europe. When I returned to the city in 1997 to improve my English, I was to live there for a year. To my younger self, coming from a medium-sized city in Colombia to a chaotic, fast, noisy, congested and aggressive metropolis of seven million people, this map was my protective shield and compass.
Architecture professionals have an advantage over many: we read plans. We are used to creating representations of places in the visible city. They are or will be on the surface. Less evident, of course, is the Underground. That is another realm of the invisible city, less manageable, less legible. Although I had the essential and beautiful abstract diagram of Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map, that wasn’t enough for me to understand where I was standing and how to move confidently in the foreign capital.
That confidence came with this geographic style Underground map, 1992, covering the central London area. This map shows all the Underground lines printed onto a street map, with main line stations marked in pink and places of interest in orange. Various symbols are used to show the location of Tourist and Travel Information Centres, street markets, theatres or cinemas and monuments. It was with this map that I learned to understand and accept the city with a more self-reliant attitude. I treasured the glossy folded paper for months (no Google Maps apps on smart phones then…) until it succumbed to an autumn rainstorm as I came out of the Victoria and Albert Museum. When I returned for the third time to London to do my master’s degree a few years later, I felt fully in charge. I have lived in this country since then.
WHAT TO LEARN FROM IT…
In looking for my old lost map in the London Transport Museum, I found that Transport for London has produced a new version. A Tube Map of 2014 combines a level of geographical utility with the familiar abstract language of Tube line colours. My old map is thus a precursor of the synthesis that combines the qualities of an abstract diagram and a geographic map with recognizable details, such as major parks, roads and neighbourhoods. This is a necessary lesson for situations when one must explain different levels of reality at the same time. Interestingly, as urban design practitioners in our different roles of influence over the built environment, we deal with plans where the geographical accuracy and the abstract conceptual representation run concurrently. Together, they are powerful tools to communicate the transformational visions we create, aiming to improve the lives of people in cities. From the most ambitious masterplans to the most austere spatial frameworks; from simple urban design diagrams to sophisticated data visualizations; even the most utilitarian legible city maps, all of them play a role as precious tools to introduce, discover, understand, compromise, accept, and, I hope, to fall deeply in love with our built environment. It happened to me many years ago and it is still happening today.
Principal Urban Designer, City Design Group, Bristol City Council
MSc City Design and Social Science, London School of Economics and Political Science BA Architecture, Universidad del Valle, Cali, Colombia
urban design, urban extensions, housing layouts, masterplanning
To influence city design by using my British experience and expertise in Britain and in Colombia, if and when I return there