04/05: The Agency of Mapping

The following is a written response to The Agency of Mapping by James Corner.

 James Corner objects to the depiction and use of mapping as a tool for representation, a means of describing objective and neutral truth. To Corner mapping is an active, engaging and revealing process which is able to uncover relationships and potentials which often would otherwise remain invisible. Corner uses the distinction made by Gilles and Deleuze between maps and tracings. Tracings are reproductions of existing knowledge, and inherently reductive as a result. Maps represent what exists in addition to new possibilities; they are to be judged on their performance as such and not merely on ‘accuracy’ or “alleged competence.” Maps operate in this space between documentation and creation by means of their inherent abstractness and their analogous relationship to ground/place/ territory. Maps can relate to real and physical places but require a rigorous selection and editing process to determine which of all possible realities ends up on a map.

Maps are fictitious in that they are contrived and represent an abstract perspective (plan orientation). They hold values and judgments, and offer deliberate perspectives (see Mercator Projection vs the many possible Airocean World Map). Maps in fact create territory, in that space must be documented in some way before it becomes territory. Corner goes through a few examples of mapping exercises, like those undertook by the Situationists, which try to challenge “fixed, dominant image[s] of the city by incorporating the …. character of the urban experience.” He also compares the mapping of proposed programming of space by Tschumi and Koolhaas (looking forward) to the historical layering of Eisenman’s work. Corner concludes by arguing that mapping is a creative act and should be open-ended and rhizomatic.

Corner_agency_of_mapping-4 Corner_agency_of_mapping-13 Corner_agency_of_mapping-19

  • “Make a map, not a tracing!” (-Gilles & Deleuze). Like a diagram, maps are not merely representational but explorational

  • mapping offers “greater efficacy in intervening in spatial and social processes”

  • doubly projective maps: project elements off the ground and projects back a variety of effects through use

  • orthographic maps/GIS have an air of objectivity and quantitative analysis whiche stifles “social, imaginative and critical dimensions” of mapping

  • Winnicott: it is futile to distinguish map from territory or try to assign primacy to either

  • mapping requires an application of judgement

  • space is situated, contingent and differentiated

  • David Harvey: the struggle for planners/architets isn’t spatial as much as advancing a more liberating process/interaction in time.

  • Seeking less a utopia of form than a utopia of process

  • “proto-urban conditions” are drawn out from existing structures and potentials

  • Seeking a disciplinary embracing of mapping as tool to engage social and cultural realities, to accept mapping’s subjectivity

“In describing the ‘agency’ of mapping, I do not mean to invoke agendas of imperialist technocracy and control but rather to suggest ways in which mapping acts may emancipate potentials, enrich experiences and diversify worlds.”

“Maps are highly artificial and fallible constructions, virtual abstractions that possess great force in terms of how people see and act. One of he reasons for this oversight derives from a prevalent tendency to view maps in terms of what they represent rather than what they do.”

“The power of maps resides in their facticity. The analytical measure of factual objectivity (and the credibility that it brings to collective discourse) is a characteristic of mapping that ought to be embraced, co-opted and used as the means by which critical projects can be realized.”

  1. Does a map need some relationship to geography? Can a map be ‘placeless’?

  2. Could a physical intervention on a territory be considered a map, or does a map need to be ‘non-physical’?

Some 15 years after this article was written most of the ideas and arguments expressed by Corner have been more or less accepted and incorporated into the architectural discipline, or at least PennDesign’s pedagogy. I would liken Corner’s views on the inherent subjectivity of mapping to the inherent bias found in journalism. Journalistic bias can be shown in the tone and position of the author or it can be shown in what topics the author chooses to focus on. New Journalism gave up on objectivity and placed the author firmly within the story. Werner Herzog, in his views on truth and documentation, believes facts and objectivity can only offer a partial picture of stories and events. I think the proliferation of data visualization and mappings on the internet suggest that a broader audience has taken up Corner’s arguments and challenges. I don’t know what a “utopia of process” is and I thought a lot of Corner’s creative vocabulary was pedantic, but I agree that mapping is a creative and generative activity.


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