New Book Revisits the Debate over NYC's Iconic Subway MapsHistorians in the News
tags: New York City, cartography, maps, urban history, mass transit, subway
For fans of transit cartography, the New York Subway Map Debate of April 20, 1978, is remembered as a legendary showdown between two irreconcilable approaches.
On that evening inside Cooper Union’s Great Hall, Italian designer Massimo Vignelli attempted, in vain, to defend his abstract map of New York City’s subway system against the push for a more accurate and detailed one being ushered in by John Tauranac, then the chairman of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s map committee.
Since 1972, straphangers had relied on Vignelli’s modernist map of the New York subway system, which presented the five boroughs as a blocky city of beige water and gray parks overlaid with a colorful subway system composed of 90- and 45-degree lines. But critics like Tauranac complained that the map distorted the city’s geography.
The map debate earned a lasting place in transit lore, but the details of the exchange were largely lost until filmmaker Gary Hustwit — known for his landmark 2007 graphic design documentary Helvetica — made a couple of chance discoveries. While working on a mini-documentary about Work & Co’s new real-time digital subway map for the MTA, he unearthed a complete recording of the 1978 debate. A week later, Hustwit tracked down a photographer at the event. A book idea was born.
The New York Subway Debate brings their face-off back to life for a 21st century audience. A transcript of the event is accompanied with photos and new interviews with original participants, plus an insightful foreword by designer and map artist Paula Scher.
In it, readers can tell that the writing was on the wall for Vignelli’s creation, which ended up being taken out of use one year after the Cooper Union debate. Its replacement — envisioned by Tauranac, executed by Michael Hertz Associates, and updated over the years — is still in use. But Vignelli’s design has endured: The MTA has brought back modified versions of it in products such as The Weekender, which shows users how to navigate weekend service changes, and a commemorative printed system map to celebrate the Second Avenue Subway opening in 2017.
Most recently, the real-time digital map presents Vignelli’s straight subway lines and Helvetica text over a more geographically accurate city map. And a new MTA pilot program has installed an updated version of the 1970s-style subway diagram in nine stations, accompanied by the standard maps; the pilot might be expanded system-wide in several months.
Bloomberg CityLab sat down with Hustwit recently to talk about the book, his own thoughts about the original Vignelli map, and why it has survived even after being removed from New York subway cars more than 40 years ago.
What made you decide that a transcript of this 1978 subway map debate was worth publishing in 2021?
The debate was something Vignelli talked about when I interviewed him in 2005 for Helvetica. It was something I heard about before but I didn’t know the specifics besides it being Vignelli vs. Tauranac, and that it was a big design brouhaha.
Fast forward to last summer, I was working on a short documentary for Work & Co, who did the new live digital map for MTA. It takes inspiration from the Vignelli map, but updated it as a live, responsive digital map that takes advantage of the MTA’s ability now to provide live-time data on where their trains are at any given moment. During the making of that short film the debate came up again, so I did some research and had a friend at Cooper Union put me in touch with their archivist.