A vast collection of old military maps has been made available online through the UK’s Royal Collection Trust, taken from the collection of King George III, thanks to the exhaustive work of Yolande Hodson. While the troop positions and tactical maneuvers they document are fascinating, the maps are also a spatial survey of building types, terrains, and urban plans, including star forts, walled villages, protected natural landscape features, from bays to river valleys, and other strategic environments.
As the blog Ian Visits explains, “Maps were an important part of George’s early life and education, and he built up a huge collection of more than 55,000 topographical, maritime and military prints, drawings, maps and charts. Upon the King’s death, his son, George IV, gave his father’s collections of topographical views and maritime charts to the British Museum (now in the British Library), but retained the military plans due to their strategic value and his own keen interest in the tactics of warfare.” The new website apparently documents a mere 3,000 of those documents.
Indeed, as Ian Visits notes, “Highlights of the collection include two-metre-wide maps of the American War of Independence. These vast maps were probably hung on purpose-made mahogany stands in Buckingham House, enabling the King to follow the steady erosion of his hold on the American colonies.”
There are a few books I wanted to mention here at the height of the holiday season, not because they’re new or even necessarily recent but because, selfishly, I simply wish more people had read them. If you’re looking for an extra gift, or just a last-minute surprise, for anyone with an interest in architecture, landscape, archaeology, acoustics, geopolitics, history, and more, here are eight titles to consider.
(1)The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)—This is an academic work, in both tone and approach, but of the ideal kind: nearly every page had something I wanted to underline, write down, or scramble to look up elsewhere. Put simply, The Strait Gate is a history of the door, but, as Jütte shows, this ultra-quotidian architectural detail—the dividing line between inside and outside—has political, psychological, Constitutional, philosophical, mythological, narrative, cultural, and even material implications that are easy to overlook. Whether it’s a controversial order that “all door handles and knobs be removed from homes and shops” so that the metal could be melted down for war materiel, divine gateways as described in the Book of Revelation, or the resonant phenomenon of Torschlusspanik—“panic of gate closure,” aka a fear of being locked out—Jütte’s book is a superb example of how we can still look at architecture afresh.
(2)The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press)—What did cultures without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge think of the monstrous skeletons and fossilized bones they occasionally unearthed? Quite a lot, as it happens. It turns out that huge chunks of human mythology, including the existence of dragons and the idea of an extinct race of titanic super-human ancestors, can all be traced back to misinterpretations of paleontology. Mayor’s writing is casually engaging—even quite funny, at times—and the book’s many examples of ancient human societies encountering monstrous, inexplicable, and possibly otherworldly things hidden in the earth stuck with me long after reading it.
(3)The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox (W.W. Norton)—If you have even a passing interest in sound, this is the book to read. Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer, introduces readers to sonic phenomena around the world, both naturally occurring and artificially induced, from the frozen surface of Russia’s Lake Baikal to Stone Age tombs in rural England. There are examples of sound art, acoustic science, and even landscape-scale auditory effects that easily justify the subtitle, “sonic wonders of the world.” This would pair well with David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, for those of you interested not just in acoustics but in avant-garde composition and ambient music, as well.
(4)The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere (Harvard University Press)—This slim book, part of classicist MaryBeard’s excellent (but, sadly, now hibernating) “Wonders of the World” series for Harvard University Press, hit so many sweet spots for me. Author Cathy Gere convincingly shows how Mediterranean archaeological discoveries over the course of the 19th century helped to shape an emerging European mythos of the glories of war and historical empire. These same emphases lent themselves extremely well, however, to tragic and grotesque distortions that soon fed into the twin ideologies of Nazism and 20th-century fascism. Along the way, Gere writes, Classical discoveries misinterpreted by modern biases helped to justify British involvement in World War I. Gere’s book includes a brief, beautiful, and monumentally sad description of young, Homer-quoting scholars being shipped off to war to fight a rising evil from the East—only to be annihilated in the sodden trenches of the Somme. The Tomb of Agamemnon is probably one of my favorite ten books of the past decade; no other book I’ve read in that time conveys the true political stakes of archaeological research and the clear and obvious risks in distorting history for ideological ends.
(5)Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Anchor)—It’s a little disingenuous to suggest that this widely publicized book has been overlooked, but Lawrence in Arabia is nonetheless an uncannily well-timed history of the post-World War I Middle East and well worth taking the time to read. I was utterly absorbed by it for nearly a week. Part military adventure, part geopolitical biography of Lawrence of Arabia, part soul-crushing alternative history of a region that could have been—complete with agonizing descriptions of the infamous assault on Gallipoli—this book will make you see the entire 20th century differently, up to and including our own century’s Iraq War and the rise of ISIS.
(6)Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (Granta)—I mentioned this book in a recent post and I would recommend it again. Map of a Nation tells the story of the British Ordnance Survey, the institute’s original geopolitical context, and the experimental cartographic tools it used to make its imperial surveys more accurate. For anyone interested in geography, maps, landscape, or British history, Hewitt’s book is a must-read.
(7)Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley (Grove/Atlantic)—You don’t need to be interested in the wonkish details of the telephone system to be amazed by the weirdness of Exploding the Phone, Phil Lapsley’s introduction to so-called phone phreaking. On one level, it’s a story of bored teenagers using synthesized sound and DIY home electronics to hack the global telephone network; on another, it’s a story with hugely metaphoric, almost occult undertones. The phone system’s diffuse and labyrinthine system of “inward operators,” robotic mechanical test numbers, and secret military phone exchanges—to name only a few ingredients—takes on the air of something invented by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison: teens encountering a world of numerological connection and mechanical intelligence through handheld receivers in the long afternoons of the 1960s and 70s. So good.
(8)Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwarth (Simon & Schuster)—The only thing that makes me pause before recommending Ben Hellwarth’s Sealab right now is that a brand new paperback edition is due out in June 2017; but, that aside, I heartily endorse this one. Imagine Archigram teaming up with a secretive branch of the U.S. military to invent an utterly bonkers new version of human civilization on the ocean floor, and you’ve roughly pictured what this book is about. Whether it’s describing what were, in effect, moon bases at the bottom of the sea or bizarre experiments with farm animals, submerged ecological research stations or Cold War espionage in the Sea of Okhotsk, Sealab is as much outsider architectural history as it is a maritime geopolitical thriller. At the very least, preorder the forthcoming paperback if you want to wait before diving in.
Finally, it’s super-obnoxious to end with my own book, but if you’re looking for something to read this winter—or if you need a gift for someone who can be hard to shop for—consider picking up a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City. It’s a mix of true crime, architectural theory, and first-person reporting, from a Chicago lock-picking club to flying with the LAPD’s Air Support Division, from an architect who became the most prolific bank robber of the 19th century to fake apartments run by the British police. A Burglar’s Guide includes interviews with a Toronto burglar known for using the city’s fire code to help pick his next target, with renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, with game designers, and with FBI Special Agents, among others, and the whole thing is currently being adapted for TV by CBS Studios. Check it out, if you get the chance and let me know what you think.
“The 1940s include a 1942 map of German dialects,” Meier writes, “and a 1944 map of concentration camps in the country. The 1950s, with innovative photomechanical reproduction and precast lead letters, saw maps on the Korean War and railroad construction in Communist China. The 1960s are punctuated by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, while the 1970s, with increasing map automation, contain charts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Arab oil embargo.”
But it’s the mapping tools themselves that really interest me here.
On one level, these graphic devices are utterly mundane—triangular rulers, ten-point dividers, and interchangeable pen nibs, for example, any of which, on its own, would convey about as much magic as a ballpoint pen.
As the CIA points out, their earliest mapping division “produced some 8,000 hand-drawn maps and 64 plaster topographic 3-D models in support of the war effort. Many of their products played crucial roles in the planning and execution of major military operations in the European, North African, and Asian Theaters. On display here are just some of the many tools that OSS cartographers employed in their production process.”
In a sense, it’s not unlike seeing the actual typewriter with which a particular author wrote her novels, or the battered, handheld sketchbooks a painter once carried with him to a distant mountaintop—only here, in art historical terms, we are looking at the graphic tools and visual documents through which a country’s overseas influence was realized and maintained.
It is a narrative of covert state power as relayed through cartographic objects, the outlines of an imperial nation-state arising from them like a ghost.
Among other things, Hewitt’s book reveals the often deeply strange tools—including surreal glass rods—through which British mapmakers and other agents of terrestrial exploration measured their nascent empire, helping to transform landscape into a mathematized system of coordinates and, in the process, conveying to British authorities the exact volumetric extent of their political domain.
There was the empire, in other words—but there were also these exotic objects of measurement through which that same empire was conjured, as if through cartographic magic.
[Image: The same point in Shanghai, shifted between its map and satellite view; via Google Maps].
The slippage between map and territory is made unsettlingly clear by a mandatory geographic offset introduced into digital cartography products operating in China.
Variously known as “_applyChinaLocationShift,” eviltransform, the “China GPS Offset Problem,” and, most interestingly, as “Mars Coordinates,” this algorithmic shifting of GPS coordinates is related to China’s official mapping and survey rules, devised for national and economic security.
I’ve written much more about this in a new article for Travel + Leisure, where everything from trap streets to Jorge Luis Borges gets involved, as well as questions of technology, international borders, and geopolitics. Check it out, and let me know if you’ve had any experience with the issue yourself.
Something I meant to post three few weeks ago, before October became the Great Lost Month of constant busyness and over-commitment, is the story of a 70-ton relief map of California, unseen by the public for half a century, that has been re-discovered in San Francisco, sitting in “an undisclosed location on the city’s waterfront.”
In its time, the map was considered far too marvelous for simply cutting up and storing—but that’s exactly what’s happened to it.
It was as long as two football fields and showed California in all its splendor, from Oregon to Mexico, with snow-capped mountains, national parks, redwood forests, a glorious coastline, orchards and miniature cities basking in the sun. It was made of plaster, wire, paint, and bits of rock and sand. In the summer of 1924, Scientific American magazine said it was the largest map in the world.
However, we read, “The problem with the map is simple: it is huge and would cost a lot of money to move, restore and display it. The last estimate was in the range of $500,000. And that was 30 years ago. It is a classic white elephant, too valuable to scrap, but too expensive to keep.”
And, today, it’s not going anywhere: “The Port of San Francisco has no plans to be anything but stewards of its storage, and no one else has come forward in half a century to rescue the map.” If you have half-a-million dollars or so, and heavy moving equipment at your disposal, then perhaps it could soon be yours.
While finalizing my slides for tonight’s lecture at SCI-Arc, I was reading again about one of my favorite topics: trap streets, or deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms.
In other words, if a competitor’s map includes your “trap street”—a fictitious geographic feature that you’ve invented outright—then you (and your lawyers) will know that they’ve simply nicked your data, giving it a quick redesign and trying to pass it off as their own.
But this strategy of willful cartographic deception is not always limited to streets: there can be trap parks, trap ponds, trap buildings.
And trap rooms.
Earlier this week, I was reading about the rise of internal navigation apps for mobile phones, apps that will help you to find your way through otherwise bewildering internal environments. Large shopping malls, for instance, or unfamiliar subway stations.
A number of start-up companies are charting the interiors of shopping malls, convention centers and airports to keep mobile phone users from getting lost as they walk from the food court to the restroom. Some of their maps might even be able to locate cans of sardines in a sprawling grocery store.
Whichever company can upload the most floorplans before everyone else will, presumably, have quite an economic advantage. So how could you protect your proprietary map sets? What if you’re the only company in the world with access to maps of a certain convention center or sports stadium or new airport terminal—how could you keep a rival firm from simply jacking your cartography?
Introduce false information, perhaps: trap halls, trap stairs, trap attics, trap rooms. Nothing sinister—you don’t want people fleeing toward an emergency stairway that doesn’t exist in the event of a real-life fire—but why not an innocent janitorial closet somewhere or a freight elevator that no one could ever access in the first place? Why not a mysterious door to nowhere, or a small room that somehow appears to be within the very room you’re standing in?
It seems to be a mapping error—but it’s actually there for copyright protection. It’s a trap room.
On one level, I’m reminded of a minor detail from Joe Flood’s recent book The Fires, where we read that John O’Hagan, New York City’s Fire Commissioner, used to drive around town with blueprints of local buildings stored in the trunk of his car. If there was ever a fire in one of those structures, and his men would have to find their way through smoke-filled, confusing hallways, O’Hagan would have the maps. But is there a kind of Fire Department iPhone app? Could this be downloaded by everyday citizens and used in the event of emergency? What about a Seismic App for earthquake-prone cities like Los Angeles? Going into any building becomes a considerably safer thing to do, as your phone automagically downloads the relevant floorplans. Perhaps buildings known to be fire hazards, or known to be earthquake-unsafe, are somehow red-flagged as a warning before you step inside. (In such a context, the first person to become Mayor on foursquare of every earthquake-unsafe building in Los Angeles wins cult status amongst certain social groups).
But I’m also curious about less practical things, such as what cultural, even psychological, effects the presence of trap rooms might actually have. Games could be launched, the purpose of which is to find and occupy as many trap rooms as possible. New paranoias emerge, that the room featured above your apartment on the new app you just downloaded is not really there at all; it’s a trap room. You can’t sleep at night, worried that you actually have no neighbors, that you’re the last person on earth and every building around you is a dream. There are panic attacks and feelings of unreality, that no map can be trusted, that you’ve been living in a trap building all along. An Atlas of Trap Rooms is then released, with a foreword by Kevin Slavin.
These and other subtle geographies—trap architectures—awaiting detection all around us.
Artist Shannon Rankin does amazing things with maps. Treating them as mere pieces of decorated paper to be manipulated—clipping out spirals, folding crevassed roses of ridges and faultlines, pinning up confetti-like clouds of circles and zigzags—she creates “new geographies, suggesting the potential for a broader landscape.”
But seeing these makes me want to feed full-color sheets of obscure maps through laser-cutting machines, slicing elaborate and random geometries to reveal the longest possible distance between two adjacent things, or to discover previously unknown proximities, the whole Earth cut-up and unspooled like a lemon rind.