Mind the Reality Gap

Back on Tuesday, I went along to an early evening talk by Nils Norman at the London Transport Museum on the Fantasy Piccadilly line. As a previous post indicates, I have a certain fascination with design and the Tube, and I’ve always had an interesting in mapping fantasy spaces onto real ones. The talk also covered a lot of ground around the idea of introducing deliberately anarchic play spaces into ordered and controlled public spaces. There’s a whole other topic there which, although interesting, was not my prime reason for going along.

Regular Piccadilly line users will be familiar with the Piccadilly Above Ground poster. This takes the form of an impossible perspective over London, showing various features the Picc runs beneath. Norman was commissioned by the then Platform for Art to look at doing something with the same space on the carriages. One interesting side note is that he was unable to find anything out about the original work: who commissioned it, why its choices of features is so odd and who actually produced it. Norman’s eventual response was to map a fantasy version of London over the same impossible perspective. This map contains utopian and dystopian ideas about the city (or about cities in general) and landmarks which might exist in these other versions of London. So there are 1930s floating stations at Arnos Grove, Ron Heron’s Walking Cities (an idea, co-incidentally, I used in Badblood Diaries), wind turbines out on the Thames Gateway and HG Wells’s aliens in Acton. There are skywalks, a branch of retro-futurist urban design with its own flickr group now.

There’s also the Mini-Tru (Ministry of Truth) from Nineteen-Eighty-Four which is one of Orwell’s ideas which sticks in your memory. Most Orwell fans will know that, although described as being on the edge of the river (where both the classic BBC adaptation and Norman place it), its external description was based on Senate House (a building replicated, bizarrely, on a building over in Henrietta Place).

In Islington, there are biodomes. A recurrent theme in cityscape utopias/dystopias and something we have started to treat as familiar since the building of Eden, Norman tied his to ones designed by Fuller in the 1930s and 1940s. Fuller’s largest dome was envisioned covering Mid-town Manhattan and providing an air-conditioned environment for those within it. Naturally, as Norman pointed out, you wonder what about the people excluded from the dome? Are they doomed to hot sweaty ugly lives?

Norman also created the Boho/Asbo artwork at Piccadilly Circus. He mentioned in passing that he was told Picc. Circus is the only Tube station entirely below ground, but I’m not sure how correct that is. Other stations, such as Tottenham Court Road, are entirely sub-surface but have their street exits emerging through buildings, and Picc. Circus has one exit (which I still call ‘the Tower Records exit’ through a shop’s basement.

Overall, the talk was interesting in that way that sparks off lots of little thoughts, and provides lots of things to start researching when you get back home. The Cubic theatre is also just the right size venue for this sort of talk, and has theatre seats covered with a Tube moquette. There’s to be talks on Tube poster designs over the coming months, which I hope to be in town for at least one of.

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