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.

View Slideshow

Author's Note

The exhibition Cartographic Grounds, which ran from November 1 to December 19, 2012, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, was initiated by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the faculty of design and Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design, and Charles Waldheim, John E. Irving Professor of Landscape Architecture and chair of the department of landscape architecture.

Special thanks to Dan Borelli, Anya Domelsky, Michael Ezban, Jennifer Esposito, Beth Kramer, Fadi Masoud, Lara Mehling, Stacy Morton, Robert Pietrusko, Benjamin Prosky, Pat Roberts, Savina Romanos, Siena Scarff, Melissa Vaughn, David Zimmerman-Stuart and all of the designers, collections and collection staff who graciously agreed to contribute time and materials.

Jill Desimini, “Cartographic Grounds,” Places Journal, January 2013. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • 01.18.2013 at 05:44

    Thank you very much for this inspiring collection.

    We are happy to announce, that the Taiwan Strait Atlas, based on the map shown at slide 30/31, is almost finished and recently running as a kickstarter campaign: . One can not push too hard, trying to make the world a better place.

  • 01.19.2013 at 10:00

    Thank you for this collection. I would have appreciated some extended captions with each map that explains how each image is relating to the primary objective to "reimagine the projective potential of cartographic practices that afford greater proximity to the ground itself." Especially since we can't see the images in their original context or the actual artifact itself. It seems to me that most of the drawings are squarely focused on relations and reduce objects to their cultural representations, without grappling with that fact and so while fantastic drawings with projective potential, they do very little to achieve the stated objective. In fact, most of the earlier drawings do a better job of surmounting this tendency it seems (von Humboldt's drawing for instance).

    Some captions might allow us insight in to how and why certain tools (conceptual and technical, such as the section and adobe illustrator) are being used to approximate surficial conditions and communicate something about reality, for instance.

    Also, why is mapping in quotes in the introduction? Is it not mapping?

  • 01.22.2013 at 21:20

    Always nice to see representations of data visualization, but...the images need to be larger. A good approach to displaying posters (a similar medium, requiring detail views) on the Web is with a magnifying glass functionality. You have to see the fine print in these to really understand them. Thanks!

  • 02.22.2013 at 16:24

    thank you for wonderful exhibition and for this generous follow-up.
    linda pollak