The Design Observer Group

Posted 01.17.13

Jill Desimini

Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary

“The drawing of a parallel between cartography and architecture is instructive. Each lies in the field of the practical arts; each is older than history; and each, since its beginnings, has been more or less under the control of its consumers.”

— Arthur H. Robinson, The Look of Maps, 1952

The ascendance of “mapping” and data visualization in design culture has changed the way architects, landscape architects and urban designers communicate ideas about buildings and landscapes, often privileging abstract forces and flows over the material conditions of the site. This exhibit reimagines the projective potential of cartographic practices that afford greater proximity to the ground itself. The approaches presented here seek to reconcile the precision and instrumentality of the plan with the geographic and territorial scope of the map.


Cartographic Grounds investigates a range of surface conditions and representational tools, cutting across multiple disciplines. It follows the contour line from its origins in early European bathymetry to its terrestrial arrival in 19th-century Parisian parks to its projective potential in the contemporary work of James Corner Field Operations. The stratigraphic column is celebrated as the means to create vibrantly colored geological maps and, by extension, to depict any subsurface condition. The work of Prussian geographer Alexander von Humboldt demonstrates the power of the section; he translated his field notes from an 1802 expedition to Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador into an intricate rendering and cut-away — techniques that provided the opportunity to combine the physical characteristics of the surface materials with his botanical survey information. Lines, often deployed to delimit territory, are used instead to describe topographic morphology and to explore interfaces between surface and subsurface, land and water, earth and sky.

There are no absolute standards or conventions in cartography, but there are logics, systems and precise techniques for describing the ground that are capable of transcending scales — from the body to the territory — and materials — from the aqueous to terrestrial — without losing fidelity to the condition being depicted. In Cartographic Relief Presentation, Eduard Imhof reacted against loose cartographic practices and pushed for the careful rendering of terrain, the foundational layer of many maps and landscape plans. As design extends its purview to cartography, it is time once again to look closely at maps and plans, to immerse ourselves in their beauty but also to uncover their projective potential. We have an even greater challenge now, as our drawings are required to read at numerous scales, to be interactive, to make sense of big data, and to describe increasingly complex systems.