READ | The Agency of Mapping

Posted on 27/02/2013


The implications of a world derived more from cultural invention that from a pre-formed ‘nature’ have barely begun to be explored, let along accepted, at the level of cartographic practice.

I have settled into reading James Corner’s essay in Mappings, edited by Denis Cosgrove (1999). Corner examines the ‘agency of mapping’, discussing ‘the exploratory inventiveness integral to acts of mapping’. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s declaration to “Make a map not a tracing!”, he considers mapping as an enabling and creative act that can set the conditions for “new eidetic and physical worlds to emerge”. Corner offers an opportunity for designers and planners to “not only see certain possibilities in the complexity and contradiction of what already exists but to actualise that potential”. This, he says, is “particularly important in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to both imagine and actually to create anything outside the normative”.

He charts a tense relationship between mapping and planning/design, having found that “most designers and planners consider mapping a rather unimaginative, analytical practice, at least compared to the presumed ‘inventiveness’ of the designing activities that occur after all the relevant maps have benn made (often with the consequence of the contents of the maps ignored or forgotten) … [Consequently] critical experimentation with new and alternative forms of mapping remains largely underdeveloped if not significantly repressed.” He further makes the point that “there has been so little advancement and invention of those specific tools and techniques – including mapping – that are so crucial for the effective construal and construction of new worlds” despite the emergence of new ideas and theories in design and planning.

Corner identifies four techniques or practices of mapping that are emerging in contemporary design and planning – “each producing certain effects upon perceptions and practices of space”:

  • drift: discloses hidden topographies within ruling, dominant structure in an attempt to re-territorialise seeimingly repressed or spent ground
  • layering (strata): mapping is no longer restricted to preliminary site surveys or data collection but rather extends generatively into the formation of the design itself, analytically transforming the originating referents into new figures and coordinates
  • game-board: multiple processes of urbanisation must be engaged and artfully, yet indeterminately, choreographed in relation to evolving open-ended spatial formations
  • rhizome: mapping is an open and inclusive process of disclosure and enablement; it comes to replace the reduction of planning.

From techniques such as these, Corner proposes the possibility of “inaugurating new worlds out of old”, highlighting mapping as a means for emancipation and enablement. Planner and designers, planning and design, should be integral to recognising and exploring this potential so as to also breathe new life into staid and conservative professional preoccupations. A geographic or cartographic return of sorts.

Posted in: maps, theory, thought