The way our world looks like today is a result of centuries and centuries of human migration, of complex natural phenomena that has resulted in the geographic appearance of the world’s continents today. We understand this world through our lived experiences, but we also understand this world through a two-dimensional man-made invention – maps. Maps define the many contested borders of the world and have been used in an oppressive capacity, in particular places, for example, segmenting off sections of a place from marginalised societal groups.
Maps aid us in navigation and help us make sense of the vast scale of our world, but they also have many limitations. The Mercator Projection is a well-known example of a map that heavily distorts reality, making Greenland, for instance, appear the same size as South America when it is only one-eighth as big. The field of urban planning has throughout its history relied on maps to aid in the layout of urban settlements and design of urban environments, but these maps have also tended to be disconnected from the myriad of experiences of those “on the ground”, as maps can fail to take into account the complex nature of an urban area.
Le Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin is a clear representation of maps used to sell a story, and of maps treating a site as a tabula rasa, casting aside the context and history of a specific site. Le Corbusier’s vision in Plan Voisin was to demolish two square miles in the traditional downtown area of Paris, building 18 cruciform glass office towers in its place, arranged on a rectangular grid in a green space that could function as a park.
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A key part of marketing this scheme was a map of the proposal contrasted against a satellite image of the city. Placed side by side, Le Corbusier’s drawing on the left is a vision of an ordered city, with clean pencil lines and neatly arranged streets. The Marais neighbourhood shown on the right is the opposite. The satellite image shows the narrow, winding streets of the neighbourhood in full clarity, its jumbled streets something that Le Corbusier’s plan sought to “solve.” This juxtaposition of images sums up the approach of Le Corbusier’s line of thought in a “Science of Urbanism,” which was by all accounts an imposition of ideas. The utopian ideas of Le Corbusier and other Modernists were represented through these highly ordered maps, maps which however tended to ignore the complex socio-cultural nature of urban life.
Maps, however, have not only been used by urban planners to depict utopian societies, they’ve also been used to justify and organise repressive colonial regimes, like that of France in Morocco. After Morocco’s designation as a French Protectorate, the French administration drew up a series of maps of the city of Rabat. A 1922 map that outlined planned urban infrastructure projects in the city is a powerful visual reminder of how maps can be used in an architectural capacity to shape societies that function on inequity and inequality. The map is drawn from the all-encompassing gaze of a colonial urban planner, with the exclusion of certain areas and highlighting of other parts done with deliberate and calculated intention.
Rabat’s twin city to the North – Salé – is left omitted from the map, as a city mostly inaccessible to outsiders and thus ignored by colonial urban planners. Learning from previous colonial urbanism experiments in Algeria, which had seen an attempt to forcefully integrate the local population, the Rabat map instead shows an approach towards segregating local settlements from that of European settlements through an open space such as a ‘cordon sanitaire’. The historical indigenous quarter of Medina in the map is depicted as a red zone, this form of diagramming suggesting a space that is meant to be controlled and surveilled.
In a similar fashion to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin map, this 1922 map of Rabat is also an effort to control metropolitan space. The yellow lines on the map are drawn over already existing areas, penetrating through an urban fabric that had existed throughout Moroccan history. The map also shows that the medina area remains neglected, while the European quarters to the west and south of Rabat are allowed to grow – the local population obligated to live in sub-standard conditions in an area that would be purposely left without adequate funding and infrastructure.
In present day, many conversations around urban planning have seen a pivot towards a more holistic design approach, where maps are supplemented with perspective “ground-level” views, and more involved community participation. We see in today’s societies an almost infinite number of tools available for people to create their own maps from the comfort of their homes. With the increasing ubiquity of maps around us, it’s important to understand the relationship between power and this two-dimensional representation of urban space. To sufficiently understand urban settlements, we need to look to satellite images that show a city as it is, to a place’s history, to lived experiences – and not only rely on maps.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Equity. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.