TRAINS, Flying Carpets and Reverse Cultural Engineering

"The idea of moving away escaping something yet creating new forms and better structures. Useful multi transport systems that can only work at the moment of testing."(1)


[fig.1] TRAIN service on the Petite Ceinture in Paris, image HEHE 2003


Rail transport consists of rail tracks, carriages and a train station. These three elements constitute the "machine ensemble", a unity that one cannot imagine to be untangled into separate autonomous parts. The development of this machine ensemble continues as an ever-expanding process, with new high-speed train networks being installed worldwide. Its progress is faster than our fading memory of early train design. In our sub conscious we are still familiar with the industrial features of steam engines, like the 'whoo-woo' sound, even though in today’s reality we are not exposed to it any longer. Technology and design of trains have been advanced and iterated in many details since the steam engine, but the machine ensemble has prevailed in its 19th century form until today.

However, when the first rail transportation systems where deployed in England, the idea of a machine ensemble was not at all clear. The design of trains evolved from a cross fertilization of the dominating transport at the time, the horse carriage, and the steam driven mining wagons. Like in the old days of horse coaches on roads, the rails where thought to be just a different type of road, as the word railroad manifests. The connotation of a road suggest that everybody is free to operate their private vehicle on the tracks, as we do on roads, and as a matter of fact people did just that:

“As late as 1838, there where private vehicles on the Liverpool-Manchester line ... The vehicles remained individual road vehicles, but for the duration of their travel on the rails they had to be lifted onto an undercarriage that is fitted to the rails: Now to accommodate coaches and chaises...” (2)

The background for the Train project is the idea of personal automated rail transportation, which constitutes in itself a chapter in the history of train design, emerging in the nineteen fifties and sixties under the title Personal Rapid Transport (PRT). PRT research projects were generously financed by national governments, worldwide and apart from a few exceptions (3) their implementation failed. Amongst the failures is the project ARAMIS (4), a French research project for the development of a network of on-demand, non-stop, automated cars to carry up to 4 people along guided rails around Paris, which shows the complexity and unfeasibility of recreating a complete machine ensemble from scratch (5). The TRAIN project shares the fascination for a personalised automated travel experience, however, its inspiration did not derive from a system of vehicles, but from the idea of using an existing architecture, The Petite Ceinture (The little belt) in Paris. The “Petite Ceinture” is a magic site: an industrial monument, a rail track that encompasses the city of Paris, abandoned in 1934 due to the extension of the metro lines towards the Paris suburbs. The TRAIN project started with this particular architecture: proposing a détournement of the local urban geography as a strategy to develop a transport design concept. As the artists Raphael Zarka & Vincent Lamouroux (6) observed: “we discovered the site before the vehicle, we started the project from the experimental track, not from the Aerotrain”.


Personal Rapid Transport system, Cabin Taxi, Germany



[fig.2] TRAIN service on the Petite Ceinture in Paris, image HEHE 2003


A second site for the development of an personal transport vehicle was the nostalgic tram track in Istanbul. The tramline runs along Istiklal, the busy pedestrian shopping street in the western part of Istanbul. The nostalgic tram track inspired a new design for the TRAIN project, which came to be called “Tapis Volant”, or Flying carpet.


[fig.3] TRAIN service on the Petite Ceinture in Paris, image HEHE 2003


Tapis Volant appears as a rectangular red cushion with beaded tassels dangling down from each of its sides. It runs along a single tram track, using it as a monorail, its wheels propelled by an electric motor. The cushion lies on top of a mechanical system that allows the driver to balance when seated in the Lotus position. This posture not only mimics the operation of a “real” flying carpet, but also links body posture to movement in a way that driver has to be Zen to operate …

The experience of driving Tapis Volant is semi-automated: The vehicle glides along the tracks, accelerated by the act of tilting forward and comes to a standstill when leaning back. This method of operation shifts the ratio between automation and control: allowing for an unconscious modus operandi. The experience is unlike driving a car, where the driver is exposed to a constant flow of complex control mechanism. Car controls act as surrogates, they do not relate to an experience of movement nor do they construct an aesthetic relation between the car and the environment that it moves through. Their function is to make the driver believe that we have control over something that, in a split second, can be out of control. This control-centered approach contrasts with the mono-functionally of preliminary vehicle prototypes in the moment of their invention, like the early flight constructions of Otto Lilienthal, “which where only controlled through swinging forth and back his legs” (7) (surround sound, electronic side mirrors and climate control are always features that are added at a later stage). The more we lose our ability to experience the process of controlling our movement through space, we feel uncomfortable or at least removed from our surroundings.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch points at this in detail throughout his book “Railway Journey, The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century” (8). Schivelbusch begins his observations at the moment that the first public railway transport systems were implemented. He shows how the first generation of train passengers found the experience alienating, and compares this to the common organic forms of transport, powered by horses and wind, which had a direct relationship with the terrain that they traversed. Every meter of the journey corresponded to a tangible physical and social experience. In contrast, the first rail travelers felt that they were mere parcels: shot like a bullet through space. People experienced a loss of integration with their environment. This perceptional shift was coined in Victorian times as the “Annihilation of space and time”. The speed with which the train cut through the landscape shrunk space and erased local specificness: perceiving the landscape through a panoramic vision of the distant, whilst the foreground disappeared into blur. It is precisely this foreground, the specificness of the local, that the TRAIN project claims back in the form of a series of installations placed on abandoned and partly unused rail tracks. Tapis Volant reduces the operational control to one simple body posture and therefore shifts the aesthetic experience of movement through space.


[fig.4] Dresine, image source unknown


The TRAIN project uses a method of reverse cultural engineering: by navigating freely through time, space and culture, it is possible reinvent an older technology without accepting long established conventions. Technological processes develop like a fractal image: In the center of this image is the original invention and towards its edges are the smaller, more and more marginal sub-innovations, which can never be bigger than their creator. The concept of George Stephenson’s train remains the same; the recursive developments may manifest themselves in faster speed, better service and a redefinition of the culture generated around the train. Using a method of reverse cultural engineering, train transport, the conceptual starting point for TRAIN is situated in the past. From here a design process is imagined that looks at design decisions that were at some point in history considered unfavorably, but that could be equally valid for tomorrow.

The image of Tapis Volant corresponds to this working method, not only as a romantic “semantic vehicle” for the city of Istanbul, but also as a timeless “transport design” that only exists in the imaginary world of fiction. There are parallels with artist duo Ansuman Biswas and Jem Finer performance/video, who operated a flying oriental rug on board of a Russian parabolic zero gravity flight (9). This interplay where fiction meets reality, a flying carpet in zero gravity or the fying carpet in Istanbul that is propelled along the restored Nostalgic tramway, points at a design technique that considers the present as a brief flash of time, mapping the past and the future as equal entities for which we can design.


"TRAINS, Flying Carpets and Reverse Cultural Engineering " was written by Heiko Hansen for the catalog of the "Vehicles of Registration and Omniscient Observational Mechanics" workshop, 2005 in Istanbul




1) Fifth Cousin Removed, by Liam Gillick, published in The Bastard Metronome Nº 7, London 2001, edited by Clementine Deliss

2) The Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, University of California Press, 1987 page 25

3) The Cabinentaxi, built in Hagen in Germany, was used for an extensive testing program conducted from 1973 to 1979. It was commissioned by the City of Hamburg but later abandoned due to lack of funds. The Morgantown PRT at West Virginia University was completed in 1979 and is still running an on-demand and scheduled service across 8.7 miles and 5 stations of the university campus. More recently, the Ultra PRT system in Cardiff, Wales is currently being built to link the city center with Cardiff Bay, the test track opened in 2002.

4) Bruno Latour's book about the French PRT research project ARAMIS: "Aramis is a very high-tech automated subway that was developed in France during the eighties; after its sudden demise, an investigation has been requested in the reasons of this failure; the book is the scenography of this inquiry that aims at understanding what happened to Aramis, at training readers in the booming field of technology studies and at experimenting in the many new literary forms that are necessary to handle mechanisms and automatisms without using the belief that they are mechanical nor automatic."
Aramis, or the love of technology, Bruno Latour, Translated by Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press, 1996

5) Some Lessons from the History of Personal Rapid Transit, by J. Edward Anderson, Ph.D., Version 2, August 4, 1996

6) Raphael Zarka and Vincent Lamouroux created the ‘Pentacycle’, a vehicle that is operated like a bicycle, designed for use along an abandoned monorail, which was in turn originally built as a test track for the ‘never implemented’ Aerotrain high speed link between Paris and Orléans.

7) Otto Lilienthal und seine Flugzeug-Konstruktionen (The flight constructions of Otto Lilienthal) by Gerhard Halle, 1962 issue 2, Verlag von R.Oldenbourg, Munchen p.12

8) The Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, University of California Press, 1987 page 25

9) Zero Gravity, A Cultural User’s Guide, Edited by Nicola Tiscott & Rob La Frenais, The Arts Catalyst, 2005, page 57