How The Gorgeous Language Of Maps Helps Us Understand The World

Cartographers have a range of tricks to distill landscapes into two-dimensional narratives -- and the results are visually stunning.

05/08/2016 7:36 AM AEST | Updated 05/08/2016 7:36 AM AEST
© Bollmann-Bildkarten-Verlag, Braunschweig, Germany. Used with permission. Courtesy of the Harvard Map Collection, Harvard Library, Harvard University
40.7145° N, 74.0071° W, Herman Bollmann, "New York," 1962. To create this New York City map, reproduced in the recent book Cartographic Grounds, German cartographer Herman Bollmann shot over 65,000 photographs. Cartographic Grounds includes geographic coordinates for each map to pinpoint the exact location regardless of style or time period.

Mapping is a tradition dating back thousands of years, and it might seem like there’s no ground left to cover. But cartographers’ tools still offer new and unique ways to order and understand the world.

In their book Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary, Harvard Graduate School of Design professors Jill Desimini and Charles Waldheim break down the conventions of mapping through the centuries and show how contemporary designers can use them. 

The book, released this summer by Princeton Architectural Press, stems from a 2013 exhibition at Harvard that was meant to provoke architecture and design students to look to cartography for different tools and creative ways to represent the landscape in drawings, according to Desimini.

“Part of the idea of the project is to expose all of the variations and encourage people to see the world in as many ways as possible, and maybe try to draw it in different ways, so design is kind of not being lazy or doing similar things over and over again, but [matches] the diversity of the world,” Desimini said.

In one map, the LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio used a technique called “land classification” that uses colors, symbols or patterns to differentiate real or potential land uses. In the studio’s map of New Orleans, proposed restoration and protection strategies are color-coded ― for example, dashed white lines represent sites for wastewater treatment and cypress forest regeneration, blue indicates where sediment-diversion tactics can be used, and yellow areas represent relocated neighborhood development away from marshlands.

Courtesy of the LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio
37.6374° N, 122.3601° W, LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio, "Bayou Bienvenue," 2010.

“In a sense, we were really just looking to heighten precision and diversity, but I was really amazed by all the different perceptions you had of the landscape depending on the point of view, or what the map was trying to tell,” Desimini said.

In another example, Desimini and Waldheim use a painting by the late architect Zaha Hadid of a project in Hong Kong to show how the cartographic style of shaded relief can be used in urban design. A shaded relief map uses color and tonal variations to depict changes in elevation and landform.

Hadid’s proposal “calls for leveling the ground to the lowest elevation and rebuilding it from excavated rock into a polished mountain,” the authors write. “The tectonic vision is clearly articulated through surficial rendering and a carefully considered palette.”

Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
22.3000° N, 114.1667° E, Zaha Hadid, "The Peak," 1982-1983.

While the book is geared at students and practitioners in the fields of architecture and design, there’s plenty to wow anyone with an amateur interest in maps and their history ― like Leonardo da Vinci’s map of western Tuscany from 1503.

The map “has incredible hill shading, one of the finest examples of chiaroscuro applied to topography, making it a precursor to later shaded-relief drawings,” write Desimini and Waldheim.

Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
43.4100° N, 11.0000° E,  Leonardo da Vinci, "A Bird's-Eye Map of Western Tuscany," 1503-1504.

Desimini is now experimenting with some of the ideas in the book as she creates drawings for her current work. She grew up making maps of both real and imaginary places and served as the navigator on her family’s cross-country road trips, tracing their route on road atlases with a highlighter.  

The collection she curated with Waldheim shows how maps, and the information the maker decides to include, create narratives and help viewers understand a sliver of the world. Some of the maps are incredibly simple, while others require a manual to understand their intricacies.

“The navigational maps were kind of difficult to get into, but also amazing once you did ― like the idea that once you’re flying, you’d only need to see high points and low points,” she said. “So you’re looking at a landscape of these tiny peaks and valleys, and how that changes the way you think about it is really great.”

Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection
37.7166° N, 122.2830° W, Alexander Dallas Bache, "Entrance to San Francisco Bay California," 1859. This map uses the cartographic devices of spot elevations and soundings, respectively marking the altitude and depths of specific points at land and at sea. 

At any comprehension level, the different views of the world captured in Cartographic Grounds are fascinating.

Maps “still, I think, trigger imagination,” Desimini said. “The appreciation of them is universal.”

See more of the maps below.

Courtesy of Stan Allen Architect
Stan Allen, "The New American City," 2013. According to Cartographic Grounds, "The New American City is a proposal for a dense, compact, urban settlement, which incorporates food production, minimizes ecological footprint and operates independently within the one-mile grid." The land classification map uses numbering to denote everything from little factories with dwellings above to a country club, as listed in the map's key.
Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection
48.8742° N, 2.3470° E, Service Géologique des Mines, "Paris et Ses Environs," 1890. This map of Paris "correlates the layers of underground rock with the extents of urbanization above," according to Cartographic Grounds.
Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection
48.8742° N, 2.3470° E, Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, "Les Travaux de Paris" (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1889), plate VII. Created around the same time as the above map, this map is from an atlas focused on Paris' infrastructure and shows the city's sewer lines and when they were created -- blue for ones that existed in 1855 and red for those constructed between 1855 and 1878.
Courtesy of and © James Corner Field Operations
18.4517° N, 66.0689° W, James Corner Field Operations, "University of Puerto Rico Botanical Gardens," 2003 - 2006. The plan for the botanical gardens is a contemporary example of a design showing a landscape's topography through color and shape. 
Courtesy of the Harvard Map Collection, Harvard Library, Harvard University
41.9000° N, 12.5000° E, Giambattista Nolli, "Nuova pianta di Roma moderna," 1823. "Truly a hybrid of map and plan, the Nolli drawing changed the perception of public space in Rome by drawing the figures of the buildings with courtyards open, allowing the civic realm to penetrate the street enclosure," according to Cartographic Grounds.
Reproduced with permission from Ng Maps/National Geographic Creative. Courtesy of the Harvard Map Collection, Harvard Library, Harvard University
36.0574° N, 112.1428° W, William T. Peele, Richard K. Rogers, Bradford Washburn, Tibor G. Tóth, "The Heart of the Grand Canyon," 1978. Making this classic map of the Grand Canyon required 146 days of field work over four years, including climbing, exploration, close to 700 helicopter flights and use of a laser beam.
Courtesy of Valerie Imbruce
25.7216° N, 80.2793° W, Valerie Imbruce, "Agricultural Bio-diversity Study," Florida, 2004. Valerie Imbruce's map shows the distribution of plant species in the Miami area.
Also on HuffPost
Vintage Road Maps