Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary

Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary

Reviews: Books

Jill Desimini and Charles Waldheim:

Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary

By Nadia Amoroso and Nadia D’Agnone
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Focusing on creative mapping and landscape visualization, Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary, by Jill Desimini and Charles Waldheim of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, was a special treat to read. The book is visually gratifying, offering a continuum of stunning contemporary and historical maps that discuss the representation of particular geographic areas and of geo-data representations. Desimini and Waldheim offer a special perspective on maps from a landscape architect and a designer’s point of view, and therefore the content is unconventional (in a good way).
     The book is organized into ten chapters, defining the terms related to cartography by its chapter title and profiling cartographic techniques related to the chapter. A powerful foreword written by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and concluding remarks in the afterword by Antoine Picon, director of research also at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, two key figures in architecture education and research, complement the book. 
     The book is an easy read, since it is mainly populated with powerful map imagery, with a couple of pages or so in length of text for each chapter. This provides a balance between theory and practice in cartography, with a focus on landscape analysis and design. Many of the maps are not “traditional” maps. Contemporary maps are transformed into beautiful diagrams of the landscape that are depicted as stylized plans, definitely marketing to a landscape architecture/architecture audience. There really is no other book on this subject matter that has such rich visuals (both contemporary approach and historical references), and that tackles mapping terminologies in a technical and poetic way.  Else/Where: Mapping—New Cartographies of Networks and Territories, by Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, published in 2006, is somewhat similar. However, Cartographic Grounds targets the ten aspects of cartography in a technical and visually exciting way.
     Technical references are explained in a poetic manner that makes the publication engaging rather than a dull technical textbook. Various mapping techniques are beautifully showcased with historical and contemporary maps crafted by landscape architects, architects, or graphic artists and highlight1creative new ways to visually express2 the ground. The maps are works of art and visual instruments, offering a dual characteristic, stimulating the visual sense and satisfying the intellectual side. The book includes maps and text about James Corner, Richard Saul Wurman, Hargraeves, Gustafson, OMA, Groundlab, StossLU, Stan Alan, and Stamen Design—all leaders in design, visual representation, and data visualizations. Some of the maps and diagrams are presented with a title and, in some cases, a narrative about the technique of its composition. The map captions include the geo-coordinates of the site as well.

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In Sounding/Spot Elevation, Figure 1.9, Desimini and Waldheim showcase Atelier Girot’s point-cloud map of Brissago, Ticino, Switzerland. The map is a beautiful abstraction of a landscape plan by Girot. It shows the rendered plan with the datum points. The precision of the point–data cloud technique is used to describe the three-dimensional landscape in an artistic style. This is what makes the book rich. Contemporary landscape architects attempt to transform an unattractive “technical” mapping practice into a fine art. In chapter 2 on “Isobath/Contour,” take special note of Figure 2.1, done by Desimini, on various ways to express contours, shown through four drawing styles. James Corner’s map-drawing of the University of Puerto Rico Botanical Gardens (Figure 2.4) seems like a digital 3.0 version of Roberto Burle Marx’s plan landscape representations. The CAD drawings of Xi’am Flowing Gardens plan (Figures 3.8 and 3.9) by GroundLab are also visually exciting. Their creative use of hatching to describe various areas and patches of the landscape carefully fuse logic and artistry. (See chap. 3 on some creative hatching techniques in “Hachure/Hatch.”)

Figure 1-9
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Figure 2-1
Figure 2-4
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Figure 3-8
Figure 3-9
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Chapter 4 on “Shaded Relief” mentions and showcases Leonardo da Vinci’s 1502 Bird’s-Eye Map of Western Tuscany (Figure 4.4), paying homage to historical depictions of topographical relief. This chapter discusses the chiaroscuro technique, known for light and dark contrast to represent shadows and relief in 2D drawings. It was great to see the plaster model of the Lurie Garden (Figure 4.11) by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson in this chapter.  She is recognized by her abstraction of form of the landscape through poetic clay sketch-models and finished plaster models, a classic characteristic of her work.

Figure 4-4
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Figure 4-11
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Chapter 5, “Land Classification,” highlights various categories and differentiation of various areas of the plan or ground using color, symbols, or patterns to represent uses/activities, types of soils, vegetation, or ground conditions. A contemporary and beautiful example is Governor’s Island Summer Park map-plan (Michel Desvigne Paysagiste; Figure 5.4) design of the space. A lovely patchwork of various landscape types and activities is represented via a grid of collage pieces of wooded areas, fields, and water areas. This is reminiscent of a few of Corner’s map-drawings from the 1996 publication, Taking Measures across the American Landscape.
     It was a delightful surprise to see Stamen Design’s menu of “creative” and “visually-appealing” base-maps (Figure 5.15), which are used for digital mapping applications. As the former cofounders of a tech company focusing on 3D mapping applications, we readily used Stamen’s open-source “creative base maps” to adhere to the need for “designer-like” base maps on the web for our landscape architecture user-base. This chapter also pays homage to Jack Dangermond, the founder and president of ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute). Dangermond is a landscape architect who created the “standard” global Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications and turned a passion for mapping and design into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. 
     As the book clearly suggests, intelligent mapping systems are necessary to understand the formal, spatial, and temporal intricacy and richness of the surface of the earth. Mapping has enabled designers to strategically intervene and modify territory and space through better and informed decisions. However, this process is not always as straightforward as it might appear to be, and speculating on the relationship between cartographic practices and design is essential as the importance of mapping in design culture continues to grow. Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Urban Imaginary provides an important basis for this understanding.
     As in the afterword, “Conventional Signs and the Ambiguities of Maps” by Antoine Picon, begins to suggest, maps are never neutral. In design, maps are instrumental tools used to visualize and communicate a defined set of ideas. They reveal specific geographic features while simultaneously diminishing others to better communicate toward a particular design intention. A critical understanding of the various cartographic elements and visualization techniques that we choose as designers to represent the landscape is thus imperative. We need to know not only which representational style is best suited to communicate certain geographical conditions, but also which symbolic conventions are best suited given our design intentions and purpose. However, while the book seems to do a very good job at explaining the various mapping techniques in detail, it does not really go into the role of subjectivity in mapping. More could be elaborated on—not only what is revealed through mapping, but what is obscured. 

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Figure 5-4
Figure 5-15
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Another shortcoming of the book is a focus on 3D mapping visualizations. The book still focuses on the plan or aerial view, which arguably links back to Waldheim’s 1999 essay, “Aerial Representation and the Recovery of Landscape.” It would be interesting to see another complementary book that highlights 3D mapping, geodesign practices, and creative simple applications in mapping that can be utilized by landscape architects to craft beautiful site analysis and designs, including ESRI’s ArcGIS online, Carto (formerly CartoDB), or Terrapattern (a new visual aerial search engine, exploring areas with similar visual patterns). In addition, it would have been great to have more descriptive methods and techniques used to craft some of the contemporary map-diagrams.
     Bordering the fine line between spatial precision and cultural imagination, Cartographic Grounds Projecting the Urban Imaginary thoroughly depicts the intersections between cartographic processes and design culture. More specifically, it critically puts into question and speculatively reevaluates the relevance and importance of the delicate union between the plan and the map, clearly outlining the various methods for communicating both “existing and imagined grounds” (9). Its ten chapters thus become an extensive and didactic paint palette of representational typologies, elements, and techniques for the ambitious designer who will draw both to depict and project upon the landscape. Overall, it’s an excellent publication, fitting for today’s topics and interest in landscape architect and architecture on mapping and geo-data visualization. Many of the images in the book can be easily enlarged and exhibited in galleries as works of art. The book elevates site inventory and analysis for landscape architects to a new level of creativity. It is an essential and invaluable resource for all architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and planners alike, and students in the field, especially those interested in data visualization, creative cartography, and visual representation.

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