Maps are as much about art – and lies – as science

Stephen Bayley in The Spectator:

LIKE-Harry-Beck-tube-map-sketch-Victoria-Albert-Museum-©-TfL-820x550In Australia, I have been told, the female pubic area is sometimes known as a ‘mapatasi’ because its triangular shape resembles a map of Tasmania. And since we are discussing cartography and the nether regions, it is wonderful to find in the British Library’s new exhibition, Maps and the 20th Century, that Countess Mountbatten wore knickers made out of second world war airmen’s silk escape maps. Maps certainly colonise our imaginations in many different ways. The allies in Iraq had a ‘road map’ rather than a strategy. So much of personal value can be lost in the creases and folds of our own ‘mental maps’. And couples who often travel in cars will know the shrieking horrors of the map row, more complicated nowadays since satnav offers a third and often contrary route selection. If you visit the British Library you might use the Tube or go by road. So you will probably consult the Underground map or an A-Z. Here are two examples of maps as illusions, or, at least, persuasive abstractions.

Harry Beck was the London Transport engineering draftsman who created the modern Tube map. With great art he decided to use only verticals, horizontals and diagonals while, for clarity, he greatly enlarged the city’s central area. The result is an all-time, trumpets-of-Jericho classic of graphic design, admired and copied everywhere. But if you see a technical plan of the Tube lines as they actually are, it resembles a bowl of spaghetti spilt on the floor. The disparity between tangled ‘reality’ and Beck’s superlative, reductive modernist capriccio is shocking. It is not a faithful reproduction of underlying facts, but a lie that works. Therein is a central truth: the human mapping instinct is as much art as it is science.

More here.