A glimpse of the subway map past


Vignelli Map Unearthed

An artifact of the subway system pokes through at 57th St. (Photo via flickr user Nicholas Hall)

The subway station at 57th St. and 6th Ave. is an oddity in midtown. Opened in 1968 as part of the massive Chrystie St. project, it served as the northern terminal for the Train to the Plane, a Grand St. shuttle and various other Sixth Ave. locals until 1988 when the 63rd St. station finally opened. Today, it is one of Midtown’s lesser trafficked stations and the system’s 105th most popular station with only 4,237,742 passing through its turnstiles last year, and it plays home to a unique piece of history.

The above image was captured earlier this week, and it shows one of — if not the — system’s last remaining Vignelli maps still on a Transit billboard. While the map is worse for the wear, it appears to be from the mid-1970s, and one Subchatter puts it from 1974. Based on the damage to the map, my guess is that it resurfaced after Transit workers peeled another advertisement off of the board.

In related news, the Design Observer is celebrating Vignelli Week, and as a part of their coverage, they reran a 2004 piece Michael Bierut wrote on the Vignelli map. He offers it up as an ode to the artistry of Vignelli but highlights its shortcomings as a map:

In 1968, Unimark International was commissioned to design a sign system for the subways, and out of this chaos came order. Two Unimark designers, Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli, developed a signage plan based on a simple principle: deliver the necessary information at the point of decision, never before, never after. The typeface they recommended, the then-exotic, imported-from-Switzerland Helvetica Medium, was unavailable; they settled for something at hand in the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority train shop called Standard Medium. The designs they proposed assumed that each sign would be held in place at the top with a black horizontal bracket; the sign shop misinterpreted the drawings and simply painted a black horizontal line at the top of each sign. And so the New York City subway signage system was born.

Four years later, Vignelli introduced a new subway map. It was based on principles that would be familiar to anyone who appreciated the legendary London Underground map designed in 1933 by Henry Beck. Out with the complicated tangle of geographically accurate train routes. No more messy angles. Instead, train lines would run at 45 and 90 angles only. Each line was represented by a color. Each stop represented by a dot. What could be simpler?

The result was a design solution of extraordinary beauty. Yet it quickly ran into problems. To make the map work graphically meant that a few geographic liberties had to be taken. What about, for instance, the fact that the Vignelli map represented Central Park as a square, when in fact it is three times as long as it is wide? If you’re underground, of course, it doesn’t matter: there simply aren’t as many stops along Central Park as there are in midtown, so it requires less map space. But what if, for whatever reason, you wanted to get out at 59th Street and take a walk on a crisp fall evening? Imagine your surprise when you found yourself hiking for hours on a route that looked like it would take minutes on Vignelli’s map.

The problem, of course, was that Vignelli’s system logical system came into conflict with another, equally logical system: the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan. In London, Henry Beck’s rigorous map brought conceptual clarity to a senseless tangle of streets and neighborhoods that had no underlying order. In New York, however, the orthoginal grid introduced by the Commissioners’ Plan set out its own ordered system of streets and avenues that has become second nature to New Yorkers. Londoners may be vague about the physical relationship of the Kennington station to the Vauxhall station: on the London underground map, Vauxhall is positioned to the northwest of Kennington when it’s actually to the southwest, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. On the other hand, because of the simplicity of the Manhattan street grid, every New Yorker knows that the 28th Street number 6 train stops exactly six blocks south and four blocks east of Penn Station. As a result, the geographical liberties that Vignelli took with the streets of New York were immediately noticable, and commuters without a taste for graphic poetry cried foul.

Today, Vignelli’s map is but a museum piece. Out of commission for 31 years, his map still inspires debate about the proper role of a subway map, and those on eBay sell for a pretty penny. Yet, one exists, in bits and pieces, on display for now, in the subway system. Catch it before it’s all gone.

After the jump, a view of this map via Max S. from July. Clearly, Transit has losed an opportunity to preserve some of this bit of New York City subway history. Perhaps the Transit Museum should have stepped in.

Categories : Subway Maps

16 Responses to “A glimpse of the subway map past”

  1. JoshKarpoff says:

    Also, today, as part of Vignelli Week, is the grand opening of the new permanent home of the Vignelli Collection, at my alma matter, the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY.

  2. Marc Shepherd says:

    Honestly, I never saw any great artistic beauty in the Vignelli map, whereas its cartographical shortcomings were all too clear.

  3. I go through this station every day, and the map gets more and more vandalized each day. Here’s what it looked like back on June 11th:!/pho.....=fbx_album

    I actually e-mailed someone at the transit museum about this to perhaps put a plexiglass cover over it and maybe put a “Transit Museum” logo on top with a small description. I was told my message was forwarded to someone who could handle it but I never got a response back.

    It’s a shame because as you can see on my photo, Queens and Brooklyn were fully visible.

  4. Edward says:

    Wow, I remember seeing this map at 57th St station well over 10 years ago, and was surprised it was still up a good 20 years after the Vignelli map was retired. I think the MTA didn’t remove it becasue it was only a few inches from a glass partition near one of the staircases leading to the platform. Knowing the MTA, they probably didn’t clean or update the map kiosk for a good 25 years!

    When I saw it in the late ’90s it was in near perfect condition. Now, not so much. Too bad.

  5. Jerrold says:

    “……….the 63rd St. station opened……..’.

    You meant the 63rd St. LINE, right?
    (When it first opened, it was the “subway to nowhere”.)

    Also, are you sure that Cenral Park is ONLY three time longer than it is wide?
    After all, it is three “long blocks” wide, but 51 “short blocks” long.

  6. Peter says:

    I know that the station opened contemporaneously with Chrystie Street, but I’m curious -what’s the connection? Did they need lay-up track for extra service, or was it something else – i.e., they had the money, so they spent it.


  7. herenthere says:

    Hmm well if it’s still there, then perhaps someone can cut it out??? Or you can always contact CBS news, Ben, you’ve been with them before.

  8. Think twice says:

    I always thought that the 57th Street station was what the SAS stations would have looked like if it were built under the MTA’s “Program for Action”.

  9. John says:

    Of course, the two biggest flaws with the original Vignelli design were placing the 50th Street station on the 1 to the west of the 50th Street station on the AA/CC/E and the placement of the Bowling Green station on the 4/5 — in contrast to the map crushing down Central Park into a square, Vignelli elongated The Battery, making the gap between Bowling Green and South Ferry appear to be about the same distance as Bowling Green is to City Hall.

  10. BuzzJ says:

    Any Tourist who’s never been in the NYC subway or did’nt here much about it is gonna think that map is truly right. But if your a tourist in Manhattan (like most)your just gonna complain that there’s no Times Sq stop.

    This truly leaves touriusts (Times Sq Freaks) clueless. The truth of the subway can’t hide. Niethier can the history.

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