Creative Mapping

TEXT Nadia Amoroso

Creative mapping is becoming an integral part of the architecture and landscape design practice. Through mapping and the images resulting from this process, the designer can reveal a considerable amount of site information that is otherwise left “hidden.” In this way, both the architect and landscape architect take on the enhanced role of “mapmakers” who simultaneously combine conceptual art and design traditions with more conventional mapping processes. As such, acknowledged notions of what defines a “map” are being redefined by architects and landscape architects alike through the visualization of alternative depictions found within our cities, revealing hidden site potentials in a poetically striking way. Consequently, designers are evolving new and various mapping techniques that strategically reveal deeper insights into a given place.

Imagine a city is invisible to the human eye, only to manifest itself by its non-visual urban phenomena. What shape will it take? Through the aid of digital visualization technologies from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to Google Earth, architects can separate various site characteristics into strategically organized layers. What kind of imagery does non-visual urban form make? How can the abstract invisible forces and information shaping urban life be rendered visually? How can GIS and creative mapping highlight the many challenges associated with synthesizing complex phenomena, thereby enhancing the capabilities of design practices today?

James Corner’s work warrants investigation in the field of mapping. According to Corner, mapping is a process that involves a “complex architecture of signs.” In other words, mapping is a type of “visual architecture” that strategically selects, translates, organizes and shapes space. This becomes very important in the experimental phases of a project, where a proposed outcome constitutes the basis for rethinking the mapping process. This idea was highlighted in his 1996 publication, Taking Measures Across the American Landscape, which profiled various landscapes throughout America via aerial photography. Relic landscapes, agricultural lands, railway sites, mountainous terrains, wind farms and burning fields (among other subjects) were captured in his publication along with captivating “map-drawings,” the result of a hybrid mapping technique that incorporates a more artistic approach to collage with technical geographic mapping information as a means of interpreting territory and space to synthesize hidden aspects of a site. These map-drawings essentially convey both aesthetic and informational properties. Architects who wish to use rigorous GIS mapping as a base map can adapt Corner’s approach, and then apply more abstract site-related information in a more artistic way to render sophisticated mapping and diagramming techniques that can pre-figure the master plan. Through this alternative and artistic approach, Corner’s drawings and photos provide expressive and inspirational visual data relating to his creative mapping styles, and can be found in many of his works ranging from the Fresh Kills landfill project on Staten Island to Lake Ontario Park.

Creative mapping is definitely part of a widespread trend. According to San Francisco-based landscape architect and urban designer David Fletcher, the success of his recent Los Angeles River master plan, entitled “Infrastructural Armature,” used various mapping techniques and visuals attributed to GIS. As Fletcher notes, parts of Los Angeles’s infrastructure network were carefully depicted from the “matrices of transportation, water and sewer networks and watersheds,” further remarking that “the master plan used GIS spatial analysis to map our various factors for appropriate site selection and acquisition, only to reveal hidden site factors that allowed the City to make better design decisions.”

California-based architect and professor Nicholas de Monchaux has also adapted creative mapping techniques in his design practice. His Local Code project uses geospatial analysis to profile thousands of publicly owned abandoned sites in major US cities. Through this project, he examines how these vacant landscapes can be employed to visualize a new urban system. Using GIS, Local Code locates thousands of residual, publicly owned vacant lots throughout the five boroughs of New York. Local Code analyzes these neglected spaces in an attempt to provide revelatory design solutions to improve the physical and social health of the built environment.

Many architectural studio courses are encouraging alternative mapping techniques to discover various physical (visible) and non-physical (invisible) site relationships. Both Fletcher and his colleague at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Christopher Michlig, asked their students to develop non-standard mapping techniques to help visualize the urban and infrastructural complexities in the city of Vernon, a small industrial area near Los Angeles filled with meatpacking plants and abandoned sites littered with discarded oil drums. Using GPS tracking devices and light and audio sensor meters, the team, led by students Bjork Cristenson and Allen Guillen, attached this assembled senses-mapping kit to a vehicle and drove through various parts of the city to record noise and light levels at night. They later interpreted the raw visual documentations, modelled light intensities and the flows and volumes of smells in the city. These factors were combined with the empty spaces rendered in 3-D. From these striking two- and three-dimensional mapping visuals, a new map of the urban framework was developed.

In another example of student work, students in the Landscape Urbanism program at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London are encouraged to use a variety of mapping and GIS software suites to help unfold, release and address site frameworks from urbanism, environmental engineering, and landscape ecology. Here, students use GIS, Maya, Rhino, Land Desktop, Grasshopper, RhinoScript, as well as more common digital design tools such as AutoCAD, Photoshop, and Illustrator to develop complex and creative diagrams and maps to visualize the invisibles of the site, and to help synthesize complex phenomena and ideas to make better decisions. These “sophisticated” diagrams resemble a completed design where mapping is definitely a creative process and not simply part of the research.

When the Rotterdam-based architecture firm MVRDV developed their concept of “datascape”–introduced in their 1999 book MetaCity/DataTown, the topic of spatial and 3-D mapping became popular in architecture. MVRDV used qualitative (visual) approaches to signify quantitative environmental problems (numerical data), thereby creating uncanny and shocking graphics of “what if” situations for The Netherlands. These provocative mapping visualizations were expressed as potential urban designs. Since then, geospatial data mapping has become increasingly popular worldwide as more users have become aware of the potential applications of the processes. Computer programs such as 3D Studio Max, Rhinoceros, 3D AutoCAD, and GIS-related software have allowed most architects to be able to take advantage of these tools when crafting intriguing 3-D maps. 

Creative mapping can also help synthesize complex phenomena and ideas to create practical design solutions. In my own research, I have examined ways of blending art, design and geo-information to develop innovative mapping. I am mainly interested in a revised “datascaping” that crafts new landscape surfaces or abstract urban forms based on quantitative information such as real estate costs, crime rates, public surveillance spaces, cell-phone usage and urban densities. Typically, these “non-physi
cal” elements are described using 2-D diagramming (circles, lines, hatching, etc.). Using numerical data, some research design groups and architects, such as SenseAble City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Christian Nold of Biomapping in the UK, Brian McGrath of Manhattan Timeformations, and the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University are developing maps that are not just GIS outputs, but poetic visual documents capable of telling an unusual story of a new city or landscape. For example, the works being generated at the Carlo Ratti-led SenseAble City lab are producing images best described as “map-landscapes”–a blending of urban data, art, design and landscape surface. One captivating image in particular illustrates terrain being generated over the urban fabric of Rome. This new map-landscape is crafted from the data emitted by cell phone usage at a Madonna concert at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. As the concert is about to begin, higher peaks in the landscape are crafted, indicating high cell-phone usage. Another example includes the sophisticated mapping works beginning to be produced by Professors Nick Dunn and Richard Brook and their students at the Manchester School of Architecture in the UK. There, they lead the research-by-design unit called [Re_Map]. Their research is concerned with the mapping and representation of urban networks and systems, data and conditions. One example project is the Physiological Data Mapping of 3-D Graphs of Sound Valuations, produced by student Patrick Drewello of [Re_Map]. According to Dunn, the “input of data sets and processed data sets into a user interface allowed for the data to be used in direct relationship with physical and emotional metrics collected within the city. The user could use both the graphology and photographic data sets to explore the physical context as a soundscape.” Jorya Ayala, a recent graduate of the Landscape Urbanism unit at the AA and now director of the AA Paris school, has applied 3-D mapping and diagramming to extrude environmental, topographical and geographical parameters of Paris to craft physical “map-landscapes.” For an industrial site in China, Ayala developed an urban framework that seeks to understand, articulate and visualize future possibilities for hyper-dense urban areas in China.

Almost all design professions concerned with site and urban development are using Google Earth. For example, the South Florida Virtual History is a geospatially enabled learning and discovery tool under development by Roberto Rovira (Chair of Florida International University’s Landscape Architecture Department), Jennifer Fu (Director of FIU’s GIS Center), and Jamie Rogers (Digital Projects Coordinator for FIU Libraries). The project creates a geospatially enabled web platform that facilitates access to various hyperlinked digital assets such as historical archives, video clips, oral history recordings, site photos and architectural plans through Google Earth and Google Map web environments. The goal of using these interfaces will hopefully develop a streamlined search system that employs visually based digital navigation rather than text searches.

Creative mapping in architecture and landscape is a great topic of interest in exploration. A strong connection exists between the information and its visual impact, primarily because architects are in control of the visual outcome of their maps. At a practical level, it is something that many of us can take advantage of, given our greater access to data, site maps, and a palette of geo-based programs. Creative mapping in many circumstances can be the precursor to strategically formulating the final design. CA

Nadia Amoroso is the co-founder and creative director of DataAppeal. She is the author of The Exposed City–Mapping the Urban Invisibles and Representing Landscapes: A Visual Collection of Landscape Architecture Drawings. She also teaches at the University of Guelph and the University of Toronto.