Photo: Subway routes presents, subway routes pastBy
I recently came across an old subway map on full display in a building in Manhattan. The map, as the K bullet and dearly departed Train to the Plane illustrate, wasn’t so much for navigation purposes as for art and nostalgia. It was of a vintage lost to time.
The map too is of another era. Dating from the late 1970s, this was the first post-Vignelli map. After the simplicity of the Massimo’s diagram, the MTA went information-heavy. The map was — and still is — a mess from a graphic design perspective, and it featured far more information than any subway map needed. The one I spotted hanging up was an MTA release with streets that didn’t matter, locations that attracted few subway riders and a building address locator. The designers couldn’t have crammed more useless information on a map if they tried.
Last night, I saw Vignelli and two of his associates talk at the Transit Museum about the controversial and now-iconic subway map, its origin and demise, and its rebirth as the MTA’s online-only Weekender offering. Vignelli, a spry 81 with a dry wit, has very strong opinions about map making in general and his map specifically. He clearly thinks its the best diagrammatic representation of the New York City subway map, and from his viewpoint and design philosophy, he isn’t incorrect. The map shows what happens underground and nothing more. It is up to the rider to get the rest of the way there.
Calling the map that replaced him “the most horrible thing” that “makes irrelevant things relevant and relevant things irrelevant,” he questioned the need for “jillions of balloons all over the place.” He enthralled the audience, and while his original idea for a four-part map system was perhaps a bit too ambitious, the Internet has ushered in a great Vignelli revival. I’ll have a more comprehensive report from the event later today, and for now, I’ll leave you with those tidbits and a glimpse at some subway bullets lost to time.
The system changes; the map changes; and no one can agree on the best way to show it all. Is anyone more right or wrong than the next person? Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, but the same cannot be said for a map that’s easy to use and understand.
For more on the K train, read up on the history of the Chrystie St. Cut and for a trip down memory lane, check out my reflections on the Train to the Plane and its permanent place in New York City history.