Railweb Reports

Zurich main station’s Big Board and its flaps live on

Posted by George Raymond on February 18, 2016

In 1988, the Swiss Federal Railways installed a Big Board to show train departures in Zurich’s main station. The iconic Generalanzeiger displayed destinations, tracks and times on flaps under electronic control. Now a generation has passed and flaps are passé. An LED display replaced the flap display in Zurich HB in October 2015. But two Swiss artists have fulfilled a dream and given the Big Board and its flaps a new reason to live.

Gysin and Vanetti’s installation Zurich HB flap Gysin and Vanetti’s installation Zurich HB flap at the MuDA. Photo Johannes Von Arx

As the centrepiece for their exhibition at Zurich’s Museum of Digital Art (MuDA), Andreas Gysin and Sidi Vanetti have reprogrammed the Big Board to perform a multifarious mechanical dance to the heavy percussion of groups of flipping flaps. Both the exhibition and the museum opened on February 13. The MuDA occupies the ground floor of a building that was Switzerland’s tallest when built in 1961. It belongs to Swiss grocery giant Migros, whose distribution trucks pass every couple of minutes just behind the museum’s plate-glass windows.

The embryonic museum also got help from other local donors, including the city of Zurich. To raise the final 100,000 Swiss francs for their budget, however, founders Caroline Hirt and Christian Etter resorted to crowdfunding on the Kickstarter platform.

MuDA co-founder Caroline Hirt MuDA co-founder Caroline Hirt. Photo Johannes Von Arx

“We want people to experience the poetry that can be created with 1’s and 0’s…in the most physical, visible and tangible way“, says Hirt. Etter says that among other missions, the museum seeks to introduce schoolchildren to “physical computing“ and inspire “creativity and not just consumption“.

Artists Gysin and Vanetti were both born in 1975. Appropriately, they met at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland. Vanetti says flap-display technology “is as old as we are”. He says they like the high contrast, readability and reliability of electromechanical flap displays. So did the original designers of the displays. But those designers presumably didn’t worry much about one quality that fascinates Gysin and Vanetti: the sound of the flaps.

Zurich HB’s Big Board, 1988-2015

The exhibition’s catalogue describes the Big Board’s retirement in Zurich’s main station on the night of October 18, 2015: “…the electromechanical board quivered one last time, displayed a humble ‘goodbye’ and went blue.“

The Big Board is in fact three panels totalling 13.6 metres long and 2.8 metres high that just fit into the Migros ground floor. “Just the logistics to bring all this in here could fill a book“, Etter says.

Another three panels, which in the station faced in the other direction, will be cannibalised for parts, which are no longer available from the manufacturer, Omega, or the German company that maintained the board.

The Big Board contains 452 elements of different widths, each with up to 62 flaps. They showed the type, destination, departure time, track and status of each train. For other works at the exhibition, Gysin and Vanetti reprogrammed flap displays of the kinds that show a bus’s destination or petrol prices. All the devices now produce waves of abstract moving shapes. The mechanical sound of one flap’s changing becomes symphonic when many flaps move at once.

A group of flipping flaps Heavy, symphonic percussion of a group of flipping flaps. Photo Johannes Von Arx

The Gysin-Vanetti exhibition runs until August 21, 2016. Etter is already looking for a new home for the Big Board. He hopes that, unlike in the Migros building, the space will be high enough to also re-install the signs indicating “Long-distance trains“ and “Zurich-region trains“ and make the Big Board instantly recognisable to the generation of train riders who would glance up at it.

George Raymond can be reached at graymond@railweb.ch.

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