Map Critique: Everything Sings
Denis Wood’s atlas of Boylan Heights, Everything Sings, began as a instrument for teaching landscape architecture students to focus on often overlooked aspects of landscapes. To spend time ‘on the ground’ walking through the site and manually recording the unmonetizable sensory experience of being in a place. The projects’ exercise of environmental perception is documented through an atlas of over 50 maps. Woods challenged the students to consider what might be gained from unraveling the layers of a neighborhood through its structural and sensorial dimensions.
The techniques for displaying and recording the data evolved with each subject matter. The idea to map lamp light emerged out of mapping lamp post infrastructure. The subject matter was then transformed from an inventory of fixtures, into a visual representation of the feeling of being in the neighborhood at night.
Each of the maps in the atlas toe the line of topographic and thematic subject matter. The recorded data consists of physical and cultural relationships rather than qualitative observations. However, the representations can present qualities of abstraction; the abstraction is visual rather than analytic.
Wood’s argument is that neighborhoods are ‘transformers’:
…forms of organization that transform individuals into citizens and citizens into individuals, that mediate between the natural gas fields of Texas and the burner on your stove, between geologic history and a stroll downhill to the store, between the universe and the stars you can see through your window.
Temporality plays a significant role in the data sets. We can see this in mapping changes from day to night and the routes of the mail truck. But time is only secondary to the shapes the time makes in the landscape. The mapping process involved “paring away the inessential… (the neat line, the scale, the north arrow), the neighborhood boundaries, the topography, finally the streets: first the scaled streets, then a schematic grid of the streets, and finally, even a hint of a grid of the streets.” Removing the legend and usual apparatus opened up the possibilities of the “poetics of cartography.” The absence of the traditional visual cues creates an alternative texture and language for reading the map.This layering and iterative nature of the mapping project unfolds the ‘stuff of life’ to reconsider what is accounted for in designing landscapes. What might we learn from thinking about neighborhoods as processes? In his article in Places Wood states:
One way of thinking about Boylan Heights is as a place in Raleigh, North Carolina, bounded by a prison and an insane asylum and some railroad tracks and a little creek. But there are other ways of thinking about it too. You could think about it as a neighborhood, that is, as some sort of community, or as a marriage of community and place, or as those people in that place, their relationships, and their ways in the world; and thus, less a place than a process, a life process, a metabolic one. That would take an atlas to unravel: what a neighborhood is, what a neighborhood does, how a neighborhood works.
Wood’s project deals with the resonance of constructed environments. The layers and their interaction perforate the limitations of mappable material. The codes sit at the intersection of the interior and exterior: how infrastructures move inside and relate to the city dweller. Presenting the harmonies visually, catalogs and even organizes the material that is often inaccessible. This is what has interested me about murals in a neighborhood often associated with the riots of 1992. The work of the process of negotiating what will be painted and by whom, the social and sensory layers of these collaborative public art pieces could be considered as a kind of disseminated story of a neighborhood. Cataloging what we miss, building arguments of the poetics of a neighborhood: these experiments are also ways of participating and building the neighborhood.
In his description of making the atlas, Wood talks about how the presentation of the atlas was designed to be reproduced cheaply on a copy machine to circulate into the hands of the residents of the neighborhood. The idea was to use the map as a way of ‘bringing the neighborhood together and helping it to see itself.’ Perhaps even for this reason, the group also wanted the maps to have an aesthetic quality, retaining the idea that the integrity of form and use is in itself quite beautiful.
The more I imagine visual representations of invisible qualities of a neighborhood I am reminded of the English sculptor Rachel Whiteread. A great portion of her work is built by casting the space around objects and within buildings. What we are presented with, often in public spaces, is a transformation of negative space into something tangible that can be examined (the seams in the walls, the space underneath tables, etc.). We look at the weight of space in concrete sitting in the middle of a neighborhood. The invisible is made visible, the implicit explicit. What can we learn from this inversion? We continue to ask this question in order to expand the capabilities of building spatial arguments and narratives.
In applying the poetic cataloging of Denis Wood’s approach to my map, I also considered Whiteread’s process. As the entry point of “mapping a neighborhood” in my case begins with visible rather than invisible evidence, I thought it might be interesting to record other dimensions of the space. Here are a few sketches of what I would record in an atlas of Crown Heights. Other ideas to include would be: mapping the sanitation truck routes, fantom smells from the industrial zones (there is this street that always smells like cumin!), delivery bike routes (perhaps represented as an homage to the CD reflectors), and the sounds of the 9-10 subway lines intersecting in the neighborhood (maybe playing on the grates in the sidewalk).