A River No Longer Runs through It; Scene from London

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Godwin

WHEN the Victoria & Albert Museum mounted its recent exhibition of Modernism, the movement which revolutionised design in the early decades of the previous century, British contributions were few and far between. Only one Briton, in fact, stood proud among the German Bauhaus artisans and the Soviet Constructivists: Harry Beck, an electrical draughtsman who worked in the signalling department of London Transport.

Beck's innovation was the London Underground map that he designed on his own initiative in 1931. His masterstroke was to render the vermicelli of the various lines in the form of a diagram: a circuit board as opposed to a scale map. His plan is a model of elegance and simplicity that has been imitated the world over. The lines became sleek straights, the interchanges diamonds (later circles) and there in the lower portion was the only honest feature: the Thames, shepherded into neat diagonals.

Now the river has been suspiciously removed by Transport for London (it spruces up the design twice a year or so). Also missing, controversially, is any information about fare zones -- you have been warned.

"As the transport network has expanded over the years, the map has become increasingly cluttered and has lost the simplicity which made it so effective," said a TfL spokesperson yesterday. "Customer feedback, particularly from those less familiar with London, has been that this has made the map progressively more difficult to use. …