Possibly Futile Clarification

by Don Friedman on August 17, 2017

These maps of subway stations have been getting a fair amount of exposure lately. I suspect that in part it’s because they are beautiful drawings. Considering them just as abstract art, they’re great to look at; the fact that they are reasonable accurate and detailed maps of subway stations makes them incredible.

Subway stations are extremely difficult to represent visually. They are interiors without exteriors, irregularly shaped in plan, with multiple levels that often don’t overlap very much, with portions that are inaccessible to people inside. Because of switch-backs in stairs and escalators, the orientation of the stations relative to the street is often hard to determine, which is why a lot of people come up to the street in a station they don’t travel to often stop and look around to figure out where they actually are.

The problem with those beautiful maps is that I doubt they will help very much. People in general are not good at translating spatial relationships from a map to reality. Even those of us who deal with this issue every day have to work at it. For example, a long time ago I lived near the Columbus Circle station shown in the first illustration in the article. The southwesternmost stair (the one shown as exiting near Sur La Table) was the one nearest my apartment, so that’s the one I used on a regular basis. That stair comes up to the street within the body of the Hearst Building, facing Eighth Avenue a bit south of 57th Street. The drawing correctly shows the stair at the southwest corner of Eighth and 57th, but that’s about it. This is nit-picking except that this issue – being able to orient yourself both within a station and when exiting one – is the reason that these maps are technically interesting. The maps require too much knowledge of the stations to be really helpful to someone who doesn’t know them; and the use of axonometric projections can, for people unfamiliar with this type of drawing, be confusing. The Columbus monument is not inside the Columbus Circle station, it’s above it, no matter what it looks like here.

The problem of showing the stations in a useful matter is intractable. Probably having separate plans for each level, as is true of the maps at Grand Central, is the best solution, as it doesn’t require people to navigate unfamiliar 3D projections. It’s nowhere near as good-looking, but it’s more readable for the intended audience.

A Thousand Words

August 7, 2017

From Beyond My Ken: There was an interesting demonstration of the relative inadequacy of language during my trip to Governors Island last week. If you click on the photo above, which shows the Governors Island ferry tied up on the island as seen from the Manhattan shore, you can make out the configuration of the […]

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Drawing Pulled In Two Directions

July 31, 2017

I found this to be an interesting article on the use of iPads in creating and working with drawings. We use iPads pretty heavily for field survey work – taking notes on PDFs of drawings, taking notes in general, creating annotated photos – but have not got very far into using them as drawing tools. […]

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New And Obsolete Beauty

July 23, 2017

Very few people draft by hand any more, and I haven’t done so in 25 years, but I still want this brand new drafting table.

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Three Thoughts In 285 Words

July 21, 2017

I read Doug Stowe’s blog regularly. There’s a pretty good size gap between his work and mine, but what he has to say is always interesting and he says it in a way that both informs and entertains. His July 4th post is a good example of why I read his blog. In a very small […]

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Mental Mapping

July 13, 2017

This article from the Architectural League on avoidance mapping is interesting in itself – it has a lot to say about what different people feel is important in their local environment – but it’s also interesting in what it has to say accidentally about how people see those environments. Some of the people interviewed have […]

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Graphic Representation

July 11, 2017

Perspective elevation of the Fifth Avenue front of the New York Public Library: This article at ArchDaily on the graphic representation of construction details is interesting in two ways, one serious and one frivolous. The frivolous issue is that only six of the original ten illustrations are present, because the article is an incomplete translation; […]

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February 19, 2017

Another good and long read that I recommend: Why is Sketching (Still) Important (To Design)? A longer version of this argument can be found in one of the best books on engineering epistemology, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye. The shortest possible version of the idea: if you can’t draw it, you don’t really understand it. Finally, the […]

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February 16, 2017

That picture was taken in 1950 but still pretty accurately represented what a drafting room looked like when I started full-time work as an engineer in 1987. We sat on high stools, at drafting tables, having taken our suit jackets off, and used insanely-bright task lamps. I never drafted in the formal sense, but I […]

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Visual Thinking

January 22, 2017

This discussion of sketching is about industrial design, but the basics apply to engineering and architecture: if you can’t sketch it, you don’t truly understand it.

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