Total Eclipse: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Festival of Science, Music, and Celestial Wonder. August 19–21, 2017 in Eastern Oregon.

Artists are Salvaging Train Stations’ Analog Departure Boards

As split-flap Solari boards disappear from stations and airports, they reappear elsewhere.

The Solari board at MoMA. (Photo: Max Erds/CC BY 2.0)

For years, noisy analog departure boards have been disappearing from Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. These boards, most remarkable for the flapping, clacking sound they make as their split-flap cards flip to reveal new information, are often called Solari boards, after the Italian company that invented them. New York Penn Station lost its original one around 2000. Boston replaced its board, which was breaking twice a day, the Globe reported, in 2008. New Haven and Baltimore took theirs out of commission in 2010.

Now, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is planning to replace its iconic board with a digital successor, and New York is getting rid of even the giant digital version of the old design.

Travelers are mourning their loss: even as the boards break down or misspell destinations, they evoke a sense of anticipation, possibility, and reassurance—soon, that train or plane will take you away, and you’ll be going somewhere. Not everyone is willing to let the boards fade away quietly, though. Even as the old boards retire from transit hubs, they can still be found in unlikely places, as artists, designers and tinkerers save them, or make their own versions.

On its own, a Solari board is a striking object. The first one was installed in 1956, in Belgium, and its black flaps with stark white letters became part of the idiom of midcentury design. The Museum of Modern Art has a Solari board in its collection, and when the museum reopened in 2004, the Times praised the “intermittent, oddly comforting clacking of the airport arrivals-departures board in the architecture and design galleries.” 

The MoMA board usually showed the flight schedule of Milan’s airport (but could be repurposed for other uses, too). Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture & Design at the museum, notes that the Solari board fit MoMA’s main criteria for design acquisitions—elegance and economy, usually made for mass consumption, that adds “something meaningful to the world” and has a little something extra.

“When I think of the Solari boards I think of their sound, the shuffle of the flipping, and the magnetism of that,” she says. “The boards were discontinued because they just could not align with the modern day use of codesharing (with which I think many other travelers also have a hard time).”

Its aesthetics are part of its appeal to artists and fashionable brands. In 2009, Louis Vuitton’s New York store used one in its Christmas window:

But these boards can just as easily be programmed to broadcast more chilling messages. Boston’s board, auctioned on eBay, went to the artist George Sanchez Calderon, who paid $350 for it (and much more to ship it to Miami). He used it in a 2009 work, “Family of Man”:

He still has it, he says, although he’s since shipped it to Spain, where he’s starting a new studio. “Can I get the New York one?” he wonders.

Another artist, Marco de Mutiis, acquired a Solari board from the Verona train station, in Italy, shipped it to Hong Kong, and repurposed it:

Sometimes projects like these get split-flap boards made from scratch. Lucky Penny, a dance company in Atlanta, had one custom-made for a performance called “Dearly Departures.” The company Jack Spade had a board, made by designer Tom Lynch, incorporated into a window display.

The work that goes into making these machines from scratch, or even fixing an old one, can be massive. Lynch writes about how his work on split-flap displays began when he imagined a 140-character display that would spell out Twitter messages. He was an undergraduate then, and it took him five years to learn all the skills required to create split-flap units.

In Montreal, a team of three, based at Concordia University, is working on reviving the boards that once announced flight schedules at the nearby Mirabel airport. Matt Soar, an associate professor of communications studies, has a small collection of commercial signs from around the city, and when the Mirabel airport shut down, he was able to persuade the authority to give him signs from the terminal. Last year, he, along with a collaborator more skilled in electronics, started working on restoring two Solari boards to working condition, and updating them so that they could one day be connected to the internet.

Recently, they got it working. Soar held up the phone so I could hear the clack of the flaps, which made me smile. “It’s funny,” he says, “the word that just came up was happy. We’re feeding it groovy words based on how we feel about the boards.”

The board themselves he finds beautiful, with their Helvetica font and split-flap sounds. His plan is to install the two boards across from each other, so that they can be in conversation, and work with an artist to create an installation about forced migration. Afterwards, they’ll be installed in the building where he works, internet-enabled, and made interactive. 

“People are very drawn to these kind of signs because of the amazing noise they make when they run. Which is of course incidental,” Soar says. “This very distinctive fluttering sound tells you immediately, without being too intrusive, that there’s new information available. If you’re waiting for a train or plane, it can be quite comforting, really.”

It is still possible to find that comfort in the context where it was originally meant to be found: in transit. They may be disappearing in North America, but plenty of train stations and airports around the world continue to maintain their Solari boards, even if it’s inconvenient. There’s even one in Poland that still runs on punch cards.