The layout of London can only be fully understood if we examine it in three dimensions. Tim Dunn takes a look at some of the capital's greatest cutaway diagrams.
Our city is a fascinating, infuriating, terrifying, beautiful place. As curious Londonists we attempt to make sense of it and the way it works so that we can better assert our own place within it. It is often said that London is an infrastructural palimpsest: layer upon layer of networks and systems. But that really isn't the case. London, like any urban form is a complex, woven fabric of infrastructure — each system maddeningly intertwined with others.
Ancient, hidden rivers don't just flow under our modern railways — today they flow above them on aqueducts and in pipes. Crossrail ducks beneath some Underground lines and rises up above others. The remarkable London Hydraulic Power Company's pipes squeeze in and out and through and down between systems that came before them. Above ground road, rail and power infrastructure networks criss-cross each other, often obscuring what could be seen before. A two-dimensional map, while often brilliant and beautiful in its own right, is never quite enough to explain what is going on in this city. We need more.
To make sense of this jam-packed, twisting, stacked-up city, or indeed the objects that exist within, we have to look at the spaces, places and things in three dimensions. And that is where the remarkable world of the cutaway comes into its own.
The cutaway diagram has its roots in the Renaissance, where illustrators sought to explain subterranean mining through printed works. Those simple drawings became ever more complex as our technology and our places became harder to explain. It was in the 20th century that cutaways became most popular, as demand for education and explanation of transport networks and technology rose.
London, having such an incredible array of transport infrastructure — much of it below ground — has therefore yielded a remarkable quantity of cutaway diagrams. They have been produced for children, for professionals, for the public, for government — each with a different objective in mind.
Some of these are exquisite: the Renzo Picasso diagram of Piccadilly Circus (top of page) has been widely circulated before, but in helping research this article his archive team has given permission for an additional drawing — of Camden Town — published here for the first time ever:
Many readers will be familiar too with the work of Lesley Ashwell Wood, who published a vast repertoire in mid-century Eagle comics. A lovely review of his work can be found online.
The Post Office Mail Rail diagrams are a delight, and the 1926 version bears comparison with the 'Overground Piccadilly line' diagrams, of which various versions have been printed and mounted in Piccadilly line trains over the years near the doorways.
And here's another from 60 years later, showing the Paddington Mail Rail station.
As a final bonus, we've included a cross-section of something at the centre of a global network: Television Centre at Shepherd’s Bush. The plan is from July 1958 and you can find more out about it here.
Of course, a cutaway, like any illustration or interpretation, is never going to be entirely accurate. It is going to have elements removed — not just because it's a cutaway and we need to see past stuff but because the illustrator or commissioner of the drawing doesn't think they are relevant, or shouldn't be included. Others add in extra bits too – because they're making a best guess.
After all, who really knows the extent of what is under London’s streets?
Please do post links to more cutaways of London below.
See also: How deep does London go?