Underground Cities

Amazon (Canada, UK)

Mark Ovenden has made a career of publishing books about transportation systems and their maps that are both comprehensive and copiously illustrated. These include books about transit maps, railway maps and airline maps, as well as books about specific transit systems like the London Underground and the Paris Metro.

His latest, Underground Cities (Frances Lincoln, 22 Sep), is in some ways a natural progression from his past work: in the introduction he muses on the link between transit geekery and wondering about “what else lies down there beyond the walls” (p. 6). But in other ways this is quite a different book.

For one thing, Underground Cities is a book about cities’ underground infrastructure in general: not just subway lines and stations, but pedways, sewers, pneumatic mail systems and other utilities. For another, though maps, diagrams and other illustrations are found throughout this book, it’s about the infrastructure, not the maps.

The book is organized by city: 32 in all, 19 of which are in Europe, starting on the west coast of North America and moving eastward across Europe and Asia. Each chapter has a short essay on the underground infrastructure of the city, and is illustrated by photos (mostly of subway stations) and diagrams. Twenty of the chapters come with more detailed diagrams and maps. There are three types. First, each has a vertical scale showing just how deep the sewers, pipes caverns and subway stations go. Second, there’s a featured three-dimensional cutaway diagram showing the layout of some key facility, like a subway station or shopping mall. (London’s Picadilly station and Paris’s Forum des Halles are absolute standouts here, as are the facilities you wouldn’t expect, like Tokyo’s bike vaults, Helsinki’s swimming hall, or the Boring Company test tunnel in Los Angeles.)

Finally, there’s a two-page map spread of the underground city, which includes subways (and some surface rail lines), sewer lines and pedestrian passages. Each map spread uses a single colour scheme; all subway lines are orange regardless of the colour assigned to them by the official subway maps, which means that the Red Line and the Blue Line are all depicted with orange lines. A dense subway network like Paris’s becomes cluttered and indistinguishable. The map shows that there’s a subway line there, but it’s decidedly not for navigation. It’s an overview. So too is the text an overview, though there are some interesting gems there, like the cheese storage in New York City, and the tunnels carved into the Rock of Gibraltar.

Even with the included photographs, maps and diagrams, compared to some of Mark’s earlier books Underground Cities seems a bit sparse, if only because Transit Maps of the World and Paris Underground (the two books I’ve seen and reviewed) were so lavish and colourful. (Also, 12 out of the 32 cities have no maps or diagrams.) It occurs to me that this is probably a function of its subject matter. Transit systems have maps, posters and other ephemera that can be reprinted; sewer systems, pneumatic tube lines and bomb shelters, not so much. Those systems may (like Moscow’s secret Metro-2, or Tokyo’s mystery tunnels, both of which are tantalizingly and all too briefly mentioned here) be unmappable, though it may simply be that the systems are just unmapped, at least not in an accessible fashion. Rather than reprinting, Mark must have maps (by Lovell Johns) and cutaway diagrams (by Robert Brandt) made for purpose, which is (I’m guessing here) an impediment to going all-out.

For the purposes of The Map Room’s audience, this is not a book where the maps are front and centre; it’s an interesting introduction to a map-adjacent subject, and it’s got interesting maps and diagrams, though not nearly enough of them. This was a pregnant book that left me wanting more: more cities, more maps, more detail in the text and illustrations, as though every chapter ought to have been a book in its own right.

Disclosures: I received an electronic review copy of this book from NetGalley. Mark and I are acquainted in an online sense, and I’ve published an essay of his on The Map Room.

Underground Cities (cover)Underground Cities
by Mark Ovenden
Frances Lincoln, 22 Sep 2020
Amazon (Canada, UK) | Bookshop