Book Review: The Exposed City—Nadia Amoroso

Aug 28

This book starts from the observation that today we have unprecedented access to vast amounts of data, reflecting the most diverse aspects of urban life: air quality, cellphone use, crime levels, transportation patterns, and much more. What does this mean for our practice of mapping? What does this do to our image of the city? These are the questions that Amoroso studies, in a first part of the book, through the contributions of a number of important urban `mappers’: urban designer Winnie Maas (MVDRV), landscape urbanist James Corner (field operations), information designers Edward Tufte and Richard Saul Wurman, urban theorist Kevin Lynch. Remarkably, the discussion is grounded in an idiosyncratic body of work, namely Hugh Ferris’ graphic interpretations of the 1916 zoning Ordinance of New York City. His gothic 3D charcoal renderings revealed the building envelope defined by the new laws. Amoroso argues that they can be considered as 3D maps, at once analytical and, because of his exquisite draftsmanship, also artistic and hence emblematic for a new generation of mappers.

This is the key to Amoroso’s argument: powerful maps are informative, revelatory, seductive and suggestive (the precise relationship between these four terms remains unclear). They combine the analytically revealing with the performative power of a work of art to move people (designers, policy makers, the general public). There is a subsidiary, much hazier, point which is that these abstract, conceptual representations function as a powerful guide for designerly interventions in the real world.

These are interesting claims but I found the argument that the author brings to bear rather scrappy and unconvincing.

For a start, the logic behind this particular selection of `mappers’ remains to an extent obscure. Their differences, particularly in terms of the kinds of data they work from and the intended aim of their visualizations, seem to be more eye-catching than their commonalities.

Wurman and Tufte are information designers. Their diagrams are not in the first place crafted to guide design work. They are not showing the city itself but aggregate data about the city (as an aside: I have always found Tufte’s work a little bit overrated compared to the more serious and technical work of William Cleveland (Visualizing Data)). Ferris’ work is interesting, but despite a longish, 35-page essay I fail to see the capital importance that Amoroso seems to associate with it. Ferris came up with a clever and seductive way to visualize a building envelope, starting not from quantitative data but from a qualitative, legalistic narrative. Even we could see these drawings as 3D maps, I wonder what the big deal is. Kevin Lynch came up with cognitive maps, reflecting people’s phenomenological experience of moving through a city as input to design decisions. Maas represent a more technical approach, starting from large amounts of quantitative data, which are volumetrically represented as a `datascape’. Arguably, this allows for a very intuitive grasp of particularly large numbers which are difficult to comprehend (what does it mean if 242 million people have to live at an average of 2.43 persons per residential unit?). Corner, as a landscape urbanist, inevitably has a wider, territorial vision on his study object. His technico-artistic maps, mixing detailed renderings with collage techniques, emerge in counterpoint to aerial photographs. Obviously, this is a cross-cut through very different mapping practices.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the combined goal of analytical acuity and artistic persuasion is an elusive one. Particularly the examples included in the second part of the book, an annotated portfolio with a lot of work of Amoroso’s students, leave me unconvinced. Whether one uses sophisticated 3D modeling techniques, visualizing crime statistics as `threatening’ teeth, is from my point of view trivial. Simpler, more elegant techniques (albeit less spectacular but with a much better data/ink ratio) would be more effective. Quite a few maps are, frankly, difficult to decode even for a person with significant experience in data visualization and I wonder how uninitiated policy makers or the general public would deal with them.

Another difficulty with Amoroso’s argument I have alluded to is that it remains unclear how these kinds of maps can help in guiding design work. In and of themselves they do not suggest how their abstract logic translates to real world interventions. In a short interview, Winnie Maas explains how the Datascape work contributed to the development of specialized design (optimization) tools such as the Optimixer and RegionMaker, but the connection is not further discussed. Corner is perhaps the most articulate of all, but his discourse is very conceptual and one would wish a more detailed view on his way of working.

Another key point is how mappers come to select the relevant variables to be included in their maps. Monitoring capacity will soon be pervasive, with sensors embedded in every nook and cranny of our urban environment. However, this data glut does not guarantee a `better’ picture of urban reality. How do we pick those variables that reveal the `essence’ of the city? That requires a mix of intuition and a deep conceptual understanding of what urban processes are about. Iteratively experimenting with maps can help us to an extent to form that understanding, but it is not enough. The practice has to be embedded in a much wider, systemic grasp of urban realities. How this grasp emerges is not part of the discussion.

Finally, this book is not a pleasure to read. Amoroso’s prose is particularly wooden, annoying the reader with academic mannerisms, numbing repetitions and irritating hyperbole. The stilted prose and limping argument seem, unfortunately, to be a reflection of unclear ideas. In short, I don’t recommend this book and would rather refer to some of the monographs or articles on individual `mappers’ published elsewhere.

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