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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.