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The map that never was

When the man who designed the map for the London underground turned his attention to Paris, he made some striking omissions

Simon Willis | November/December 2013

When it comes to designing underground-railway maps, there are two ways to go: geography or geometry. Early underground maps were geographical. They showed the tangle and zigzag of actual railway tunnels to scale with the city above ground. These days every major subway system goes for geometry, smoothing the kinks and curves into a diagram of straight edges and rigorous angles. The pioneer of this approach was Harry Beck, the Euclid of underground transportation. In 1933, he gave the Tube in London its first diagrammatic map, useless as a guide to street-level distances, crystal-clear if you wanted to get from Wimbledon to Whitechapel on the District Line. The French were impressed, so they asked him to take a look at the Paris Métro. The map here, from 1951, is the result, and it's a triumph of graphic design. Before he was a cartographer Beck was an electrical draughtsman, and this is the ultimate circuit drawing, all those elegant diagonals giving lucidity and air to the massed squiggles of the Métro. It's what Mozart would have made if he'd had a compass rather than a keyboard. But it was never used. We don't even know if Beck submitted it.

It wasn't, strictly speaking, his first attempt at a Métro map. He had submitted a version in the 1940s. Although the records don't survive, we can speculate about why it was rejected: Parisians were still wedded to geography, and Beck's diagram paid it little regard. For all its clarity, the same is true of this version. "Just look at Ligne 1," says Mark Ovenden, who was the first person to publish this map—in his book "Paris Métro Style" (2008)—after it was bought by the London Transport Museum in 2006. "The axis of Ligne 1 just doesn't fit in with a Parisian's view of the city. It runs under the Rue de Rivoli, which is an east–west road. Beck put it on an angle of 45 degrees." At the bottom of Beck's map, Chateau de Vincennes, the easterly terminus of Ligne 1, is level with Charenton Ecoles. In reality, it's a two-mile walk north, through the Bois de Vincennes. But this wasn't the most obvious of Beck’s edits: in his first version, the Seine was missing.

When that map was turned down by the Paris Metropolitan Railway Company, he put the river back, but took his ruler to its languid curl. One thing he didn't bother to add was the Ile Saint-Louis, which lies next to the Ile de la Cité. He had a simple reason: Ile Saint-Louis had no Métro station.

The principle was razor-sharp but anathema to Parisians, who were used to using the maps outside stations to navigate above ground as well as below. Ovenden's book includes a map from 1948, which was plastered to Métro-station walls, and shows every road, park and bridge; it even has grid-squares and a scale. It is a plan of the city which happens to include the Métro lines. "A dog’s dinner," says Ovenden. In 1950, the Métro produced a pocket map which got rid of much of the detail, but still showed the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, recorded every bend of every line, listed every bus route, and looked like Medusa having a bad-hair day.

Beck imposed order. His map is hygienic and spacious. But most of all it's useful. His insight was that different maps have different purposes, and that people on the move need one that is legible at a glance on a jostling platform. And the designer's task wasn't to represent a space but a system. Subway bosses from Washington to Tokyo caught on—but not in Paris. The Métro didn’t have an official diagram until 2000. "Every single tourist had been confused by the old map," Ovenden says. If Paris had adopted Beck's map in 1951, we'd have been saved the trouble. ~ Simon Willis

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