Repetition is intrinsic to our times. As we spend our nights out, we dance to electronic music; we watch and rewatch sit-coms and Marvel films with the same plot; we scroll and scroll, and scroll again. In many aspects of our diverse lives, we find poetry in monotony. We taught ourselves how to swim in the convoluted sea of metropolitan stimuli, of the internet, of contemporary politics. With these things we are somehow familiar; often we are ignorant to them as well. Careless, but comfortable. But while many of our repetitive lifestyles are made by the activities that we choose to do, work is instead a ritual which is imposed on us. And as we think of our lives as stuck in our 9 to 5 loop, we rarely reflect on the 8:35 to 9:00, or the 5:00 to 5:30. 

The commute, and its bearing in our everyday, is overlooked. 

“How long does it take you to go to work?” I have been frequently asked. I also question myself on this, very often, as I compulsively check the quickest route on Google. This mindset carries a danger with it, that the commute can be considered merely as an utilitarian act, a means to go-to, and arrive-back-from. Then that will be it: everyone on the bus with an arm under their armpits, and the other holding their devices; a bad posture to hold for 45 minutes of your day. Just those over a certain age, who don’t commute and work anymore, will keep their head up, looking at the cityscape passing by, glancing at the details of other people’s clothes. 

The commute, however dull it may seem, is sacred. It’s where the repetitive quality of our cities resides, one that is fundamental to urban life. 

In its repetitiveness, it is also something we share, as we take part in the materiality of the city. Commutare, in Latin, means to change together (from com- ‘altogether’ + mutare ‘to change’. Changing from place to place, or changing underground lines, suggest a movement that is common, of common ownership, for everyone to enjoy, take part in, or watch in detachment.

Bob Noorda, Franco Albini and Franca Heig's design for the Metro 1 in Milan. (1957)

Lastly, one that is innate to the common citizen, who doesn't stand out in the Mercedes parade, and doesn't shy away from the play of the city, and enjoys disappearing in the crowd. 

When we commute we exercise our “right to the city”, we participate, and share responsibility to certain places. The tube station, the bus interior, the cycling lane, or the road crossing are the stages of our everyday life. They are extremely popular. Anyone who lives in Rotterdam would have been in station Blaak at least once, enjoying the sequence of colours and tiles, the weirdly ornamented escalators, or maybe that ‘ordinary’ archaeological display. More importantly, they have a common language, they speak to the citizens in similar ways according to place. They take responsibility in representing the city as a whole, of being its ultimate image, one that is either pop or niche, to our own desire.

Interestingly enough, there were specific moments in history when transit spaces were proposed as an idea, and as a project, aspiring for the invention, and re-invention, of the metropolis. From the Belle’ Epoque in Paris, to the post-war period in New York, to 1960’s Hong Kong; these were moments in which the project of the moving city came to be an interest to public authorities, and to designers. 

In the city of Milan, this interest came to fruition after WWII, when Amsterdam-born Bob Noorda was asked by architect Franco Albini to design the graphics for the new Metro1. Franco Albini and Franca Helg, who we commissioned to draft the interiors of the city’s first underground system in 1957, were looking for someone to reinforce ideas behind their proposal, one that brought symbolic simplicity at the core of the project. In their effort to bring space to the backdrop, making objects, and not architecture, appear distinctively, Noorda’s precise graphics provided a certain rhythm to underground movement, enhancing, rather than fracturing, the beauty of monotony and transit. Repetition became the norm and, similarly to a music score, the distance between repeated elements was orchestrated, as a new aesthetic of everyday movement.

Still from Wong Kar Wai's "Fallen Angels" (1995) set in Hong Kong's MTR system.

Noorda’s contribution, which was followed by public transport projects in New York and São Paulo, inspires us to question how we should move as citizens, and what should that movement look like. 

A question that is fundamental to how public life operates in a world increasingly dependent on mobility, but also one that brings graphics at the centre of it. In fact, the idea for which an urban language, one that speaks with symbols as well as words, could be calculated, drawn and designed , is by no means a recent one.  The project of the commute, however, gave to graphic designers a new task, a responsibility to design for the mainstream, and to deal with the temporality and presence of everyday places. 

Archaeological display in Rotterdam Blaak Station. (Alessandro Rognoni)

In light of this, recent astonishing attempts to design bus and underground stations as independent architectures might fall short on the long term, even if advertised as attempts to bring ‘character’ to the city. In truth, a life of repetition always holds the promise of surprise. A promise that asks us students to be alert, keeping our head up like those who are much older than us.

Bob Noorda's design for the Metro 1 in Milan, Italy. (1957)