A Fortnightly Review
A Ficto-Historical Theory of the London Underground
by Marko Jobst
Spurbuchverlag | 160pp | €16.00
By MICHAEL HAMPTON.
PERHAPS in A Ficto-Historical Theory of the London Underground it is through the figure of the “amateur-scholar protagonist” (as the publisher’s blurb puts it) that author Marko Jobst (formerly Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Undergraduate Theory Coordinator at the University of Greenwich) is able to find respite from the day-to-day duties of an academic, ie designing course modules, marking essays and explaining assessment criteria to students, as he proposes a startling new phenomenonogical take on the history of the London Underground system? Jobst’s research project is certainly methodologically unconventional, resting on a series of conversations staged in the informal niches and gloomy carrels of the British Library (natural light levels are woeful in this building, making it as dingy as a Victorian cigar shop), with a stream of phantom architectural authorities, who are conjured up, and with whom he is on first name terms, ie Jan (Piggott), Adrian (Forty), Wolfgang (Schivelbusch) et al. This is a clever way to subvert standard bibliographic referencing, though in reality means that A Ficto-Historical Theory comes across as something of a curate’s egg, its rhetoric of the highly speculative sort, aiming to re-enchant the London Underground, and reconceive it as a delirious space with “peculiar discontinuities between inside and outside”.
Jobst’s actual starting point is the very first stretch of cut-and-cover Underground, the Metropolitan line, opened in 1863 with 11.8 million customers in its first year — although his paradigm includes various earlier fantastic plans for a subterranean network: a scheme for an arcade railway down the river Fleet valley, and Joseph Paxton’s rejected Great Victorian Way, a sort of supersized linear conservatory, called out as “epic madness”. He notes the influence both of Euston as a precursor station, and of the 2nd Great Exhibition or Crystal Palace (1854), arguably the world’s first theme park. Eventually the principal mainline termini with their plush integrated hotels (apart from Waterloo on the Surreyside—which Jobst neglects to mention—thought far too rough a neighbourhood for middle-class travellers), would be joined up by the Circle line, and he makes much of this, particularly how places soon became “points” in the circulation of traffic, and Victorian railway mania transformed the understanding of space…
The Underground short-circuited the distinctions separating the architectural object and the city, and the spaces that belonged to both. To enter a station is to enter the entire interior of the Underground, one not of a building, but of the whole city, a single building spatially unfolded to become the urban whole, assuming a different face with each exit.
Parcelled thematically into short Chapters, such as “Hypnos / Eros”, “Space, Movement, Image and Machia” — themselves sub-divided by italicised “Threads”, and illustrated throughout by a series of black and white axonometric drawings by Nic Clear, with a nod to Guy Debord’s Situationist map The Naked City (1957), Ficto is cognitively challenging, an unorthodox architectural treatise in which Jobst’s narrative finds him tangled up in a conversational knot from which his own viewpoint slowly emerges; one that charts how London’s piecemeal development gave the capital city a quite different spatial trajectory when compared with Barcelona, Paris (is it far fetched to find an echo of Brexit here in the system’s non-EUness?) and New York, which were Haussmanised (i.e., subject to the scenographic regulation of long, straight vistas), and built their metros in one go. In the 1920s London Transport Passenger Board Supremo Frank Pick had actually recognised the need for order, calling London an “accident”, one he attempted to rectify by inviting architect Charles Holden to design a tranche of brand new public-friendly Underground stations (such as Arnos Grove), commissioning Modernist posters from the likes of László Moholy-Nagy and Paul Nash, together with a new sans serif typeface by Edward Johnston; in short making the LTPB “interwar England’s only real avant-garde” as Owen Hatherley puts it in The Ministry of Nostalgia (2016).
In the section called “Space”, classical modernist space, raumkunst, or “the art of space”, causes Jobst’s brow to darken. With Wolfgang Schivelbusch as his guide, we get acquainted with the dynamic break from nature which railway construction with its vocabulary of linear cuts, tunnelling and panoramic sweeps brought about, until Jobst asserts that the labyrinthine space of the London Underground is of a different order, one that is subversive of classical architectonics. He cites the “layered and multiplied” central London lines built in phase 2 as a result of Brunel’s deep tunnelling equipment (“the Tubes”) where, severed from street level reality, we meet the soot-coated surfaces of our troglodyte past, locked inside:
The dense, dark presence of earth, as matter from which all functional space is to be wrestled.
This is the realm of chthonic, Moorcockian London as depicted in the British sc-fi film Quatermass and the Pit (1967), with its fictional Tube Station Hobbs End, where after the wreckage of an ancient Martian space craft is discovered by archaeologists, a malevolent psychokinetic force is released; and of Creep (2004) starring Franka Potente, a horror flick set in an abandoned storage facility below the network where a deformed hermit carries out sickening experiments on hapless commuters.
The space of the Underground is the hollowing out that movement enacts on densities. It is an act of drilling, in more ways than one. It questions experience, our understanding of the city and its spaces, and with it, all of architecture. No less!
Here then is the heart of the matter, the Underground reconceived as a dynamic if overlooked “megaobject” (due to its size, invisibility and lack of homogenous station design — the latter exemplified by variable tiling, signage and platform dimensions), rather than a string of interconnected individual stations that had their conceptual origin in the ninteenth-century separation of the passenger hall and train shed. This shifted viewpoint is echoed above ground today in the motley, transparent look of singular buildings such as the Shard, Walkie-Talkie, Cheese Grater, Gherkin etc. So Jobst triggers a seismic wave from below aimed not just at attacking architecture’s obsessive disciplinary focus on enclosed voids as its key epistemological and structural unit, but overturning it too. The result: “lightness” becomes the new desideratum in buildings, signifying for the human subject a giddying loss of the anchor of place: architecture’s moment to leave behind its “traditional notions of burden and support, notions tied to gravity”. Repeated underground in the affective space of TfL’s carriages, the social body in transit paradoxically circulates freely even as it loses its own form, blurring as passengers merge with others in an endless trafficking, becoming “anybodies”; pure movement rather than mass, the defining, sometimes deafening hallmark of this “corporeal and spatial regime”.
Ficto becomes louder and louder, mimicking tannoy announcements as it reaches a close, and despite claiming to not be a sub-type of the better known ficto-criticism (largely associated with the dissimulating, gonzo anthropologist Michael Taussig), does occasionally lapse into discourse…
How to think movement beyond the reduction to capital, and find a line along which to escape? Because we do eventually. If there is one thing we know, it is that we are never fully contained.
In another clever dodge, Jobst hosts a conversation (by adding speech balloons) with Eduardo Paolozzi’s statue of Newton after Blake (1995) in the plaza in front of the British Library, the slightly unhinged act of a fantasist in the best sense of the word, who nevertheless recognises how precise measurement inscribes the heavy engineering project or “megamachine” of the London Underground. In effect, he has produced a smart handbook for Underground joyriders that frees itself from the visual and pragmatic grip of Harry Beck’s famous diagrammatic map.
Ultimately, A Ficto-Historical Theory of the London Underground is neither a fiction nor a history (though it borrows traits from both) but a courageous, if odd, hybrid. In 1776 Dr Johson remarked of the digressive novel Tristram Shandy, that “Nothing odd will do long”, underestimating its innovative features. It would be easy to make the same mistake again, ignoring the way Jobst as “amateur-scholar” has defamiliarized the experience of riding “the Tubes”. In 2001 I was amongst the audience at Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, to hear performance artist Bruce McLean give a lecture entitled ‘Rubbish Dump Developments and Anti-Social Housing: An Animated Speech’ in which McLean proposed an overhead monorail for London to beat road congestion and join up the major art museums. What a wonderful twin to the Underground’s “intimate world of movement and sighs” that might one day turn out to be!
Michael Hampton is a writer and critical theorist based in London with a special interest in artists’ publishing. He has contributed to many magazines and journals including The Blue Notebook, Frieze, Geschichte, The Penguin Collector’s Journal, Rapport, Schizm, /Seconds and The White Review. He writes regularly for Art Monthly and in 2015 his revisionist history Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book was published by Uniformbooks. Sharon Kivland recently published his speculative essay “Beyond Walter Benjamin’s Paris & Kenneth Goldsmith’s New York” as a limited edition in her series The Good Reader: Beyond Walter Benjamin’s Paris & Kenneth Goldsmith’s New York (Anagram Books). He is currently working on a collection of psychogeographical writings about London.