The Agency of Mapping

Please post here your reading response for James Corner’s “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention.” In Mappings, edited by Denis Cosgrove. 213-52. London: Reaktion, 1999.


17 thoughts on “The Agency of Mapping

  1. In “The Agency of Mapping : Speculation, Critique and Invention,” James Corner differentiates the mechanical competence of tracing from the creative art of mapping. Although seemingly neutral, mapping enables repressed representations to become visible. According to Corner, mappings have agency because of their analogous character and abstraction. Far from being passive, mappings are active agents of cultural intervention, playing a pivotal role in the representation of power relations and spatial hierarchies. The author pleads for a more creative approach in modern cartography, drawing from the social, critical and imaginative maps produced by several artists, such as Joaquín Torres-Garcia’s Inverted Map of South America. The artist’s personal interpretation of South America challenges the traditional representation of the continent. Intrinsically linked to perspective, mapping is the collection and organization of data from a specific point – of view.

    Half a century before Corner, in “On Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges had presaged the uselessness of cartography as tracing. In Borges’s tale, a gigantic, over-detailed map is abandoned specifically because of its redundancy with the actual territory. Corner cites Borges to support his argument that mappings as replicas are worthless. Indeed, maps cannot be entirely objective, as representing spatiality entails some form of cultural situatedness. The techniques of ‘drift’, ‘layering’, ‘game-board’ and ‘rhizomes’ are described by Corner as practices in contemporary design and planning that open up new possibilities for mapping. Such thematic techinques share a personal approach to territorial representation, the contestation of dominant images of the city as well as the multiplicity and decentering of mappings. Challenging the traditional conception of static space, Corner aims for a return to the original exploratory character of mapping, not physically like the first explorers, but creatively through mind.

    Camille Bédard

    • Tanya Southcott

      At the heart of James Corner’s essay “The Agency of Mapping” is an effort to challenge traditional cartography as an act of representation by engaging urban and landscape planning and design professionals in mapping as a creative act or process. He offers a discussion of the social, imaginative and critical dimensions of mapping as a means to discover or make visible realities previously unseen or unimagined.

      Carter has no difficulty locating his ideas in the tradition, work and critical discourse of artists, activists and geographers. The language he uses to describe and compare the creative process of mapping is both drawn from these disciplines – fields, extracts, plottings – and his own categorizations and themes – drift, layering, game-board and rhizome. Only the term ‘site’ suggests an architectural reference, but even this has been redefined to encompass a much larger and more active milieu. He summons Jorge Luis Borges’ image of the beautiful, yet abandoned full-scale map to suggest the limitations and consequent redundancy of mapping as purely representational, and argues instead for the potential inherent in the process to give form to new possibilities in the complexity and contradiction of what already exists.

      Indeed, Carter refers to the ‘inertia and levelling of possibilities’, even political impossibility, designers face in trying to realize projects out of the ordinary in a mass democracy. Because of the duality of a map – that is both analogous to reality yet abstracted from it – and hence its association with objectivity, truth and neutrality, the process of mapping offers a potent vehicle for the actualization of theory in the built environment, especially at the urban scale.

  2. Borges text talks about the instinctive , one would say that the more detailed a map is, the better it is. But a map only makes sense because it is a scaled down version of the real world, and the more it is scaled down, the more it loses details. This reminds me of the story of a man that tried to measure the length of Britain’s coastline. The more detailed he was in his survey, the more his final measure was high. Because of that fractal quality, the scale of a maps can have a huge impact on what information they convey. Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Alternative Sectional Arrangement of the Air-ocean World Map’ is another example that shows how map-making is interpretative and creative, and how it is truly an exercise of design. Maps are viewed by designers as objective and absolute tools, but the act of mapping is a subjective exercise. Corner states that a map is only truly useful when it is not a simplistic tracing and scaling down of the world, but when it reveals it’s hidden realities and makes it’s complexity understandable.

    Corner also talks about the idea that the map precedes the territory because it makes it visible, but it is of course impossible to consider creating a map of a territory without it’s reference. It is interesting to think that the ‘real’ and it’s representation are therefore closely related, and that they influence each other’s perception, as well as each other’s design interventions.

  3. The Agency of Mapping by James Corner investigates the potential for methods of using mapping beyond its traditional practices, as a means for architects and planners to better understand cities and design with social, political and cultural considerations. He describes an agency to mapping, which delves beyond basic reproduction of our world and rather draws from the multitudes of information available in an increasingly complex world. This extraction enables the possibility to make connections that highlight “urban invisibles”, basing on which educated choices for design intervention. He sees mapping as having the potential to be used as a means for creative intervention, which when used in contemporary design, can act as an agent for “producing certain effects on perceptions and practices of space”.

    I felt as though this reading succeeded in describing a possible disjointedness of traditional mapping to planning, and presented clear ideas on how to utilize new branches of mapping in our midst in order to better understand spaces and plan for urban communities. It interestingly points out a problem which is on many levels in the world today, and that is the masses of information at our disposal and the overwhelming and perhaps impossible “rhizomic” effect to control. However with new technologies the point to attempt to extract from the masses of information I see as a necessary goal for designers, illustrated in this reading as a challenge for creative mapping exercises to be utilized for the betterment of city design and spatial living.

  4. In his essay on “The Agency of Mapping,” James Corner argues for new ways to consider mapping practices: in an active sense, mapping represents a finding that is also a founding; projects both reveal and realize hidden potential. In this way mapping is never neutral or passive: as It discloses and stages the conditions for realities previously unseen or unimagined.

    James Corner wrote this essay in 1999, the eve of Y2K, five years before anyone had ever heard of Google Maps. It would have been nigh-impossible to predict the explosion of technology that has taken place over the last decade: access to archives of maps has become instantaneous, extremely sophisticated mapping tools have become ubiquitous. In many cases, this represents a paradigmatic shift where maps are accepted as a reality. Corner mentions that “it is practically impossible in a cyber-world to distinguish between what is information and what is concrete, what is fact and what is fiction, what is space and what is time.” Our identities are carried in mobile devices, reduced to a floating blue dot in a generic streetscape. We can join nearby friends, find upcoming events, local restaurants, and geotag our photos all layered on a generic top-view of the city. As Corner mentions, maps are never neutral, and yet this beige and grey top-down view has become a default mechanism of orienting the self within a city. There is now a surplus of information: every step in a “derive” can be tracked, the layers of program can be visually projected into space. And yet, in the wake of these tremendous advancements, maps have become the lowest common denominator of spatial experience. Social media is generating vast amounts of information, associated with geographical points. But it becomes necessary to question those maps that we have been given, and to examine how we can move past the data to create something extraordinary.

  5. James Corner offers a critical analysis of mapping. It describes the power in both shaping our perceptions world as well as its form. Rather than presenting maps as passive and accurate documents, the author illustrates how there are in fact very constructed images. The map does not offer objective knowledge, because it is only form by the specific choices of its authors and because it can be interpreted in many different ways.
    The author compares more traditional ways of mapping to four contemporary techniques of mapping he labels as “drift”, “layering”, “game-board” and “rhizome”, who he believe change our perception and practice of space.
    James Corner’s text reminds me of last week lecture when Kevin Manaugh explained us how he created his maps in order to show how new extensions to Montreal’s system of public transportation would only advantages the most well served neighborhoods and not the socially in need areas. Although, he was trying to display -through his choices of data represented in the maps- how inequalities would be augmented by these projects, his maps had been used to justify these projects. In this sense, the maps had been used to justify exactly what their were suppose to condemn. More than only being very creative product of their authors’ intentions, maps can be interpreted in many different ways by the readers.

  6. The act of mapping as way of rendering visible ‘realities previously unseen or unimagined’ through ‘selection, omission, isolation, distance and codification’ reminded me of a passage in Reading Architectural History by Dana Arnold that describes the role of the contemporary historian: ‘He has the dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history, and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical.’ The book also traces the different changes of attitude towards history through time, from a more narrative almost story-telling description to today’s factual renditions and reports. Yet, although History is somewhat perceived as an exact science, nowadays most understand its subjectiveness, its selection of information and the context in which it is interpreted. One can simply observe the subtle differences with which history is taught in Asia or Europe. Yet, when it comes to mapping, it seems as it is perceived as an exact science. High-end tools and means of representation lead us to use mapping as a way to reproduce our realities rather than generating abstraction which explains otherwise invisible relations of data. Like mapping, researching is never neutral or passive. It require selection and omission of data in order to construct an argument. It is a process, the making of.

    This being said, no matter how exact the abstraction of the map, how precisely it represents realities, maps cannot fully recreate our environment. This new function of mapping as a ‘mode of access to reality’ which J.B. Harley warns us about in the readings is quite pertinent with the pervasion of Google maps as Kyle brought up earlier. Nevertheless, sounds, smells, the continuously changing activity of pedestrians, heat or cold, wind are not tracked by these current mapping and are important to understand and reconstruct in our minds realities. One of the mapping techniques presented in the readings was ‘drifting’ which because it translates visually cognitive aspects of visiting a space, would allow us to map data Google map may not convey. In fact, most of the mapping techniques presented in the readings highlight information which could not be displayed be the most technological representation tools. We should not forget as the author highlighted that mapping is a creation process, almost fused, inseparable from to the design.

  7. Zamila Karimi

    James Corner, argues that mapping should not be thought of as merely tracing but as a critical activity to think with and think about – an experimental approach to uncover and discover notions previously not thought about. It is a performance that unfolds information on all levels, topographical, social, historical, and cultural. It promotes connections and relations, which may not be otherwise apparent. Mapping is this mode can be muti-functional, muti-dimensional operation to push concepts further. It is a powerful tool and is utilized by writers, social workers, planners, defense/military uses and more.
    The physical limitations of map-making should not be confused with its potential for future gains – the surface of the map can be considered as a theatre upon which a performance can be choreographed. Robinson and Petchenik “ in mapping one objective is to discover (by seeing) meaningful physical and intellectual shape organizations in the milieu……”
    Methodology dictates the types of maps one employs and so it is crucial to be sensitive at the outset to the task at hand and the limitations of certain tactics. Reality and representation may sometimes blur those boundaries especially in cartography since the notion of speed, temporality, hyper-connectivity, hyper-reality has transformed the way in which we experience and think of space. The nature of information and collection of data is another challenge, which must be contended with in order to create realistic maps that we can use to address issues around contemporary cities – rural and urban.
    Cartography as an interactive, relational concept with many uses – one of them being emancipation of the socially marginalized and economically disadvantaged. As stated by Corner, each thematic approach can be useful to understanding the Affective dimension of space and its perceptions.

  8. Charles Wong

    The development and applications of maps are discussed and criticized in the article. The author argues that maps are suppressed and devalued in terms of its capability as an agent in the design process. Architects and urban planners have derived their systematic conventions in the design process and mapping has become less relevant to the design, but transformed to an information based tool that assists the design process.

    There is minimal fluctuation in the field of mapping, which does not call for much innovation and competition. Satisfied with the current offerings of mapping related services, such as ArcGIS, the demand for advancement is discouraged. Mapping has also becomes less relevant to design. It is merely a service for designers, rather than a method that they can utilize and benefit from.

    What the mapping proponents lack is the ability to showcase the possibilities that mapping can contribute towards design. In response to the typical perception of mapping service, the author promotes the application and experimentation of mappings, referencing the four thematic ways of emerging mapping practice in the contemporary context. He emphasizes the potential of mapping as a design agent, with an innovative and explorative attitude. Attempting to alter the conventional usage of maps, the author is optimistic towards the future of mapping practice.

  9. Mylène Carrière:

    Corner’s text “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention” his exploring the concept of mapping in opposition to planning. He sees mapping as a reel creative tool to expose the urban invisibles by only reworking, assembling, relating and revealing the information.

    Then, James Corner exposes the different mapping operations. Those are “fields”, “extracts” and “plottings”. The field is a kind of canvas, a continuous surface where a system of reference is developed. This system should be a new one, developed by the author. Then the extract is a sort of “de-territorialization” of the data found in the field. This data is then plotted to show new relationships and proposing a ”re-territorialization” of it.

    These operations can then be transposed in four different types of mapping that Corner mention. Firstly, the “Drift”, which is associated with “The Situationists” and Guy Debord and their notion of “dérive”. This sort of mapping wants to valorize the individual participation within a bureaucratic power and his mainly emotionally driven. Secondly, the Layering used by Koolaas, Tschumi and Eisenman, is the concept of superimposing different data, and modifying it to create a complex fabric of ideas. Thirdly, the Game-board idea is about putting together competing constituencies on the same space to force them to work out their differences. The idea is mainly to set up a canvas to enable social interaction and negotiation. Fourthly, the mapping concept of Rhizome is and open-ended and indeterminate process. You only need a canvas where you put the different pieces you find relevant.

    In conclusion, I think that mapping, compare to planning, is an amazing tool to make visible the urban invisibles because it tries to redefines the world we are living in by social interactions and giving back to power to the individual.

  10. Alexandre Hamel

    The Agency of Mapping illustrates James Corner’s critical stance on issues of mapping. He starts by making a distinction between the passive act of tracing and the process of mapping as referred to by Deleuze and Guattari: ‘Make a map not a tracing!’ Corner argues that mapping is a powerful generative design tool that is often overlooked by architects and planners. Though this active process of synthesis, new possibilities are revealed creating opportunity for interpretations that were previously unseen. As opposed to normative methods of tracing which simply replicates known information and tries to precisely emulate our world, mapping engages the designers in producing new intelligence and exposing the invisibles.

    In a world where reality often becomes representation, it is important to question the relevance of accuracy as opposed to interpretation in the mapping process. While the subject of Google maps in the attempt to precisely document the world orthographically has been brought up in this discussion, the simulation of experience is another level of mapping that stresses even more the issue of exactitude. How exact can Google street view be in recreating a feeling of place? Where do we draw the line between reality and representation in an ever evolving world that is simplistically frozen in time and flattened on a screen?

  11. James Corner in The Agency of Mapping states the fundamental difference between a map and a tracing. A tracing being the reproduction of what is already known whereas a Map, being the construction of the unconscious. What becomes evident in a map is a connection with the ‘real’; revealing a social consciousness that exist within the site. The art of map making rests on a narrative that the author wants to affirm. Map making as a ‘creative activity’ poses questions in its product rather than remaining a finished artifact. In this way, the idea of the map is given a broader range in definition. One can start to describe a text or paragraph as a map, reflective of the thoughts of the author. What remains constant in all definitions of a map however is that there exists specific operations in mapping, “the creation of a field, the setting of rules and the establishment of a system; second, the extraction, isolation or ‘de-territorialization’ of parts and data; and third, the plotting, the drawing-out, the setting –up of relationships, or the ‘re-territorialization’ of the parts”, effectively transposing the reader spatially by triggering relationships between the self and the other.

    In recent years, technology both hard and software have expanded the field of ‘creative mapping’, ranging from the mapping of agency within building typologies to agency at a global scale. The search for and collection of Information to be filtered and re-ordered has become pertinent in an economy that is dependent on change as an effect of the mass (composed of individuals). The very beginning of this article suggests that there has been caution about mapping as a means of projecting power-knowledge, and that mapping may very be a productive liberating instrument. With so much information readily available, and our new cities (Songdo, Korea) effectively being designed with various ‘creative mappings’ as precedent, it will be interesting to learn whether living in the city has in fact become more liberating.

  12. In the Agency of Mapping, Corner examines the prospective of mapping for architects, designers and planners. He contends that although most people in these fields consider mapping as a rather pedantic, unimaginative and analytical practice, mapping actually allows us to unfold and discover realities that were previously unseen or unimagined. Corner argues that contrary to designers and planners’ view, mapping is never “neutral, passive and without consequence”, and is perhaps the most “formative and creative act of any design process, first enclosing and then staging the conditions of the emergence of new realities”. Corner subsequently identifies how four thematic developments in mapping (the concepts of Drift, Layering, Game-board and Rhizome) have been utilized in various successful and complex mapping exercises in the fields of contemporary design and planning.

    Despite Corner’s in depth argument about this apparent schism between mapping and contemporary planning and design, there is one form of mapping which I find quite prevalent and successful in these fields. The ideas represented in design/architectural diagrams, which can be considered as “the selective abstraction and/or reduction of a concept or phenomenon” [The Diagrams of Architecture – By Mark Garcia], or in other words a mapping of concepts or intentions, have become a powerful and invaluable expression medium for contemporary designers. In some cases these diagrams or mappings have become as iconic as the projects themselves; the case of OMA’s Seattle Public Library serving as the prime example.

  13. Nicki Reckziegel

    In his text “The Agency of Mapping,” James Corner attempts to illustrate the concurrent “analogous-abstract” character of the map in that it can be a literal projection that can be abstractly interpreted. Corner writes that mapping is often inaccurately used to help in the planning or designing process, because “it is assumed that the map will objectively identify and make visible the terms around which a planning project may be rationally developed, evaluated and built” In fact, “maps are highly artificial and fallible constructions, virtual abstractions that possess great force in terms of how people see and act.”

    Corner holds that different projections or techniques used to map similar things can reveal “radically different spatial and socio-political structures.” For example, Fuller’s Dymaxion Airocean World Map can illustrate several different relationships depending on how it is unfolded and re-oriented. The map has a particular vantage point and it “presents all parts at once, with an immediacy unavailable to the grounded individual;” thus, the map can illustrate that which is invisible.

    Many designers have disregarded mapping as an uninteresting, non-creative practice; as a result, mapping techniques have lacked criticism and creative development. Corner is urging designers to consider mapping as a creative activity with an enormous potential to stage conditions and expose new realities.

    However, Corner reminds that the value of the map is in its dichotomy: it is its inherently analytical and factual nature that allows the designer to construct an argument and use the map to “influence decisions, actions and cultural values.”

  14. Newsha Ghaeli

    In his article James Corner argues the need for mapping rather than mere tracing. He defines tracing-as-map-making as a visual reproduction only, whereas analytical mapping is meant to reinterpret a site. Mapping is a creative process that is meant to be generative, uncovering layers of information in order to generate design guidelines or ideas.

    For example, a superimposed mapping of historic maps reveals how a particular site has evolved over time. This can inform many aspects of design in evoking a cultural memory through social and historical characteristics uncovered, while also revealing topographic and technical information allowing one to take advantage of natural site characteristics that may otherwise have remained invisible. There is a Toronto-based firm (whose name I cannot remember) who did exactly that – the article reminded me of their lecture at the CCA in 2011.

    Over the years in the city of Toronto almost all rivers and streams have been forced underground. This local architecture firm superimposed a series of maps of a particular neighbourhood in Toronto spanning it’s founding to today in order to understand the morphology of the neighbourhood as a result of this disappearance of water. The architects realized that areas within the area that were prone to flooding were where former rivers once lay. They used this information to identify ‘at risk’ areas where more extensive draining systems needed to be integrated in the event of storm water surges and severe rainfall. They were also able to explain distinct valleys in the topography as former important sites. They identified historic homes and buildings otherwise overlooked and explained many questions about the neighbourhood’s early development. The architect’s revealed information otherwise concealed.

  15. Corner’s essay refers to the act of mapping as an analytical tool that is more creative and imaginative than most planners and designers tend to understand. Corner writes “mapping is perhaps the most formative and creative act of any design process”. His essay thus focuses on “three ways in which the social, imaginative, and critical dimensions of mapping may be re-established in modern cartography”.
    His first point discusses the map’s relationship to reality. Corner suggests that our concept of space is formed by our participation with our surroundings. I find this very interesting because Corner is quick to dismiss standard cartographic practices by referring to the fact that, at an early age, we all have an inherent ability to form mental images of our surroundings based on personal experience rather than external influences such as Mercator’s projection. Our mental images or mental maps are constantly fluctuating as we continue to engage or “play” with our surroundings.
    Corner goes on to explain that time and space are also very complex components of mapping our surroundings. I find this especially relevant today, as social networking sites have allowed our perception of distance and space to dissolve since access to information and people has become infinite. In this sense, it is ironic to think that maps have literally become “without boundaries”.

    Kristian Morse

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