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Maps and Mapmakers

Why is a map of a city so evocative? It is, after all, in many ways a reductive representation, reducing the din, excitement and variety of the urban experience to a dry sketch, an outline plot, an aid to navigation or administration. It offers, maybe, an illusion of control: you gaze down at a city captured in its entirety, enjoying the bird’s eye view, as if you might swoop down into a park or street and bear off an exotic snack or trinket. For all its apparent dryness and strict functionality a map holds a pure appeal to the imagination. To look at a map of a city you don’t know is to inhabit it virtually, dreaming your way from Avenida 25 de Mayo to Avenida Scalabrini Ortiz, from Prinsengracht to Sarphatistraat or from the Riva degli Schiavoni to Piazza San Marco.
Technology has intensified this experience, so that we can test a city before we visit it, using Google’s street view to survey the restaurants near the hotel and scope out our evening stroll, swinging round through three hundred and sixty degrees like a prison governor at the centre of his panopticon to peer at windows, traffic lights and parked cars. It’s as if you could try on a segment of your life before submitting to the experience of it. In this sense technology robs cartography of some of its ancient magic, which for me also is a childhood magic. Maps are part of the unforgettable iconography of childhood, maps of imaginary lands, treasure islands, fabulous cities, maps of ancient Greece or Rome, maps of the underworld. Maps can be daunting or frightening. In a pub today a friend visiting from Japan pulled out a map of the Tokyo underground in Japanese, and we looked with a fascinated horror at the dense network of criss-crossing lines and the script of the station names.

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