REVIEW – Michael Hampton on ‘Ficto-History’ – The Fortnightly Review

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.

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 (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…



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