Klein test for lovers of city trips: Imagine that you go to the subway. In London. New York. Paris. Shoo away all known buildings, all sightseeing highlights of these cities from your imagination, just try to visualize the way, the sidewalks, the pavement, the street signs, finally the entrance to the subway, down the stairs.
Every bet that you saw three different paths in front of you three times. To enter very differently designed subway entrances.
You probably imagined the last one as similar to the one in our photo: Curved cast iron with an exuberant “Métropolitain” sign, this is just as Paris as the Eiffel Tower. Today only 86 metro entrances look like this, but they act as landmarks in the city.
Stops, fountains, kiosks – everything shapes the city
Every big city that is self-respecting has its own design language, and this is not only evident in the big picture, in the monuments, palaces and squares. It is also the small things in the urban space that shape the face of a city, the stops, fountains, the kiosks, letter boxes and waste baskets.
The Italian architect and urban scientist Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani has dedicated a book to them: “Significant trivialities” examines European cities for what the author calls “furnishings”.
Some of this street furniture has become famous: the red telephone booth with crowns above the lattice windows is as much a part of London as the advertising column of Berlin. Limestone and basalt pavement art brought Lisbon a reputation for being the “capital of black lace sidewalks”.
Other of these little things are not noticeable: bollards, fences, lights, the way the street names are marked. And yet they too are firmly anchored in the culture of a city and contribute to their flair.
Fierce debates over the London phone booth
Lampugnani shows how great the zeal for designing these “micro-architectures” could be in many historical reviews. The city became bigger and bigger as industrialization progressed, and the urban space as an “apartment of the collective”, as Walter Benjamin put it, became more and more important.
A necessary equipment included the public toilets, for which the city architects came up with all sorts of things. There were playful tin houses, massive pavilions, half-timbered buildings, even a combination of an advertising column and urinal was tried out – but the audience failed.
Until London’s red phone booth finally stood, there was a lot of experimentation with wood, concrete or cast iron and teak doors; British Telecom’s unfortunate idea of having the houses sprayed yellow even led to a parliamentary debate.
France’s first telephone booths were made of oak wood, lined with oilcloth on the inside, they had armrests made of dark red velvet, in some of them there was even a seat, lamp and notepad. Comfortable places of discretion – “modern confessionals,” said the Paris press.
Today, since mankind has made more calls than ever before, the telephone booths have disappeared from the cityscape, and the public telephones that were last equipped with nasty glass covers were no longer decorative.
Well-known architects designed drinking halls
There are also hardly any drinking halls left. They became popular from the middle of the 19th century and were primarily used in Germany to popularize alcohol-free refreshments, sparkling water, tea and coffee.
Using these small architectures to give a street a special eye-catcher, to create a miniature structure that was functional, but at the same time beautiful, contemporary and possibly cosmopolitan, was a task that also attracted well-known names. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s drinking hall in Dessau has been in operation again for several years.
Martin Gropius designed drinking halls for both Berlin and Paris, with revealing differences: the Berlin kiosk stood on robust cast iron columns, which for the Parisians, on the other hand, was gracefully and richly ornamented – even the small pieces of furniture were supposed to contribute to the character of a city.
Very different solutions for the traffic lights
Even for simple functional objects, whose task is so clear that from today’s perspective there can only be one form for it, very different solutions were initially found: The world’s first electric traffic light was in Cleveland in 1914 – with only two colors.
Berlin only followed ten years later with a traffic tower, the horizontal lights of which were switched on by a policeman. A traffic light was set up in Milan, the four-color signal system with double lights was so complicated that it immediately led to a mega congestion.
The dry lecturer tone of Lampugnanis is a little tiring, but the many historical photos in the volume cheer up. In this way you learn a lot about the design of house numbers, manhole covers, border borders, park benches and sidewalk edges – all “indications from which you can read the development of the city as a whole by way of example”.
A book that opens your eyes, a win for your next city trip – when it will finally be possible again.
Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani: “Significant trivialities. Little things in the city ”, Wagenbach, 192 pages, 30 euros
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