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Complexity and Contradiction in Map Design

Joost Grootens

Traduit de l’anglais
par Marie-Mathilde Bortolotti

I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.
— Robert Venturi 11 Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1977), 16.

What is a city, and how can one draw it? Reduced to its essence, this twofold question preoccupies the authors of the majority of the books and maps I design. The goal of their research is to understand a spatial phenomenon and to develop techniques to handle it. The focus of my practice is the transformation of this architectural and urban research into a graphic format. As urban forms evolved over the past century into less defined entities they became more difficult to capture in a single definite image. During the same period, critical thinking highlighted the ambivalent nature of representation, especially of formats that profess to be observer independent, such as maps. Strategies to address and incorporate the ambiguity of representations have resulted in visualizations that are less easy to read. With the increased complexity of both definition and depiction, the questions of what a city is and how to draw it have become even more complicated to answer.

The Inevitable Rhetorics of Maps

A map is a product at the intersection of cartography and graphic design. It is both the outcome of a process that builds on the premise that reality can be modeled, as well as a graphically reproduced object that conveys a message to a user. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cartography is the science or practice of drawing maps and the term is derived from the Greek khártēs, ‘papyrus leaf’, and graphē, ‘write.’ The focus of the field of cartography is the process of making maps. It deals with such issues as the editing of the traits of the mapped object, the projection of spatial information onto flat media and the elimination of characteristics to reduce complexity through generalization.

Critical cartography, an interdisciplinary field that emerged in the 1990s, is the study of the full scope of the map, both as the result of a process and as a communicative object. It differs from academic cartography in that it links geographic knowledge with political power. Its practitioners are geographers, architects, artists, planners and those who defy labels.22 MIT Sidewalk Laboratory, Critical cartography originated from the work of British geographer John B. Harley (1932–1991), who questioned the “scientific” or “objective” aspects of maps. He stated that cartographers manufacture power rather than objectivity.33 John B. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map,” in Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text and Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape, Trevor J. Barnes and James S. Duncan, ed. (London: Routledge, 1992), 231–247. Harley argues that mapmakers are ethically responsible for the effects of their maps. He sees seemingly neutral scientific mapping as a highly partisan intervention, often for state interests.44 John B. Harley, “Cartography, Ethics and Social Theory,” Cartographica, vol. 26 (1989), 1–2.

In their introductory text on critical cartography, geographers Jeremy W. Crampton and John B. Krygier describe two circumstances that resulted in cartography slipping from the control of the powerful elites, such as the great map houses of the west, the state, and, to a lesser extent, the academic world, that have dominated it for several hundred years.55 Jeremy W. Crampton, John B. Krygier, “An Introduc…