Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The aesthetics of mapping

Recently I came across the website for Stamen, a design and technology studio in San Francisco that just released three interactive maps as part of the City Tracking project. Using open source data from Open Street Map, the toner, terrain, and watercolor maps each present the same places to very different effects. One goal of the City Tracking project is to make data about cities more legible, which in this case they define as “beautiful, interesting, accessible.” This idea of legibility gives equal weight to engaging the user as it does to providing information. But what can a map with no words tell us?

Stamen describes the watercolor maps in this way: “Reminiscent of hand drawn maps, our watercolor maps apply…area washes and organic edges over a paper texture to add warm pop to any map.” On this watercolor map of Morningside Heights parks and lawns are green, city blocks are brown, major streets are yellow, and institutional properties are purple. Some Columbia buildings are outlined, but the map cannot reliably be used to navigate the campus or the neighborhood using any named streets or landmarks.

While many would agree that there is something very beautiful about these watercolor maps, especially after playing around with the website (try looking up your hometown or Amsterdam or Washington D.C.), they are not especially easy to comprehend unless you know what you’re looking at. Traditional maps use a combination of graphic representations and place-names. The relationships between the words and images are typically what we look for to orient ourselves to the map. For example, the Stamen terrain map has a fairly traditional presentation, with neutral colors, important buildings outlined, labeled streets and parks. The street names and clearly defined buildings can help you locate exactly where you are within the landscape of the map, whereas the watercolor maps would not prove useful in navigating the area they represent.

This led me to think about artistic renderings of campus in architectural planning documents. Because they concern changes in the use of space, these drawings are done with a particular eye to accuracy and detail. In the 1960s, architect I.M. Pei was called upon to plan new architectural developments on Columbia’s campus. Although the plans never came to fruition due to Pei’s clashes with the administration over his artistically and economically ambitious project, his interim report of March 9, 1970 provides a glimpse into what is typically included in a campus map.

First is the map with buildings numbered and labeled that was used as the “before” picture for Pei’s plans. It shows campus as it was laid out at the time. The second map has the same level of detail as the first, but is hand drawn and only the streets are labeled. This was used as a general guide to what buildings in the neighborhood were included in the campus, as shown by the shaded overlay on the main buildings. This campus sketch barely contains any words but is as minutely detailed in terms of paths, steps, and roofs as the more technical drawing. Like the watercolor map, the hand-drawn quality of the second image makes it feel more like an art print than an architectural tool. This image and the watercolor image both fulfill the “beautiful” and “interesting” commandments for legibility proposed by the City Tracking project. At first blush the Pei drawing seems more accessible than the watercolor, and thus more legible. Its attention to detail gives the image its artistic quality, and it is this same detail that makes it functional.

However, the precise detail on the 1970 maps is exactly what makes them outdated. Construction in the northwest area of campus has completely transformed that section. For all its vagueness, the watercolor image is more timeless, and thus in a way more useful. Forgive the turn of phrase, but it paints a picture of the neighborhood in broad strokes and allows an alumnus from 1970 and a student in the class of 2015 to recognize the same landscape and its beauty. Although less useful than other maps for locating a specific destination in Morningside Heights, the watercolor map reminds its viewer of the beauty of organization that often gets lost in the details.

Watercolor Map Tool

Terrain Map Tool

PBS IdeaLab article about Stamen maps

I.M. Pei interim report images courtesy of the University Archives at the Columbia Rare Books & Manuscript Library

1 comment:

GeorgiK said...

Cool post. I gotta say I really like the Stamen watercolour tool. I went around the world in a few minutes and I really liked the world in watercolours. You make a comment about those maps not being easy to comprehend, which I do not necessarily disagree with, but it made think of the possible definitions of map comprehension. Are maps purely directional? In most everyday life occasions they probably are, but then thinking back to that article by Corner and all the different types of maps I was thinking there must be more to maps than pure information.
People put up maps as decoration, or to claim identity, or to claim knowledge. There is clearly an argument for the watercolour maps as decorative panels. After all if you put up a nice satellite photo map of Amazonia, the information on it might not be all that important to its usage, so the watercolour version might work just as well. But there can also be merit in using such maps when trying to claim identity, as in college students placing maps of their cities, countries, continents. The street names in such maps are not of primary importance. It is the ownership of the map that matters and in this case the harder the map to be recognised, the better it might serve that purpose, as it will show the distinction of the identity that one seeks through placing such a map on the wall.
Clearly I am not taking a watercolour map on a road trip, but if it could serve all kinds of other map purposes, I wonder what other types of maps are out there that could be produced to specifically work towards that purpose. And the possibilities are quite vast.