At a time when most of us consult maps most often the lie on backlit screens that we use to trace disembodied routes in virtual worlds, moving toward buildings often outlined in electric greens or blues, the disturbing absence of materiality makes us find reassuring tangibility in the comprehensive record of all buildings in the United States that the New York Times, with help of Mapbox tools, has converted from a database of the geospatial footprints. The view can alternate between a nation-wide view of density, regional panels, to one hovering over streets and neighborhoods, creating a 2-D surface abstracted from the environment, illustrating the configuration of real estate across the nation.
There’s much pleasure in the sense of material embodiment and spatial recognition in the crisp greys and half-tones render a collective mosaic of human habitation, mapping every building in the United States from an astoundingly comprehensive database. The result dynamically mimics an ability to move through a known space–if not for navigational ends, in the manner of Google Maps or other mapping platforms, but as a way to mimic the ability to observe every house, in a vritual flyover map, to gauge the footprint of mankind as it is frozen at a single given moment, but in ways that may give a portrait of where money is converted and ploughed into real estate as much as of population density, or the uneven terrain of the United States, in ways that cannot be read without some bearing on the current electoral map, and the deep tensions between our conception of our nation.
2016 Presidential Race
The resulting map exults in possibilities of examining built space at multiple scales, as much as an interest to provide guidelines to read, by inscribing the viewer in a perpetual bird’s-eye view. The interactive nature of the map allows one to swoop to any city, zip, or site at intriguingly and quite astoundingly large-scale, moving among ridiculously tremendous variations in scale with the power of a DIY version of Charles and Ray Eames’ “Powers of Ten” (1977) on your own personal computer screen, expanding the field of vision by powers of tens, and reducing it by tens to the level of angstroms.
The expansive panning over the United States’ lower forty-eight starts as a collection of micro graphical specks, unable for anyone to draw or transcribe, not corresponding to population density, building heights, or in which one is invited to magnify scale to arrive at the neighborhoods and places that one might recognize, as if to measure its accuracy against one’s own spatial awareness, and to be astounded by the accurate abilities of transcription of the scope of mechanical recognition of building forms from satellite surveillance.
Berkeley CA/North Oakland CA
The rich detail of the map has a counterpart in the thin scratchings of the mosaic of large scale views, however, as the delicate traceries of the small-scale image gain a mute stolidity in the black blocks of individual buildings. The sense of emptiness that the map viewer or reader gains increasingly comes to accompany the sense of vertiginousness, however, in ways much akin to the viewing of Eames’ video of scalar multiplications and diminutions,–even though they seek to provoke a sense of the expansiveness and fluidity of our constructions of space. The elegant becomes an eery denaturing of space, even more than a reduction to two dimensions.
The interactive map is not to space, or really even to a political territory, but to the literal footprint of all structures in the nation–a literal symbolization of settlement patterns on a virtual result. The result is a teaser of the possibilities for re-rendering satellite views, that so powerfully mimics cognitive perceptions we can match our own memories with its virtual surface. By embodying a high-resolution outlines of human habitation, we can drop in at any zip code or place-name into the crowded record of every house in the lower forty-eight to investigate patterns of housing, abstracted from any setting, in eye-opening ways. It is able to capture interest in the macro-level patterns of settlement and built structures in an absolutely flattened space registering the density of all built structures in the lower forty-eight–
–to individual regions, s we interactively pan, scan, and move around rendering of buildings computers were trained to detect from satellite imagery, examining the crowding of habitation and alarming density of how we cluster in space, in strikingly uneven national markets of housing or real estate, in ways that force us to reflect on how we inhabit space, more than navigate it, rendered in ways that accenturate the earth’s curvature to heighten the sense of spatial perception with a crispness of detail one could never process save from machine-read satellite imagery.
San Francisco and the Bay Area/New York Times/Mapbox
The powerful recognition of inhabiting space offered both in the printed version or the interactive maps was so compelling that the Times included local print versions in its national edition, suggesting a cool bridge between interactive and print graphics in the dynamic uses of D3 mapping tools Mike Bostock had first pioneered at the newspaper. For the interactive abilities translated into print in a local way, as if to encourage readers to pore over the interactive version with the attention demanded by the detail of paper maps , in ways that recuperated the excitement of examining a static map’s local detail, and recuperating with new intensity the discovery of navigating through a powerful striped-down symbolization of inhabited space and housing density. Darkness is an odd proxy for habitation, but concretizes a huge database, sifted through from satellites and amplified by local and federal maps, in a scary reminder of the major sites of investment in real estate–and the uneven valuation of the land–and of the fine grain of our powers of remote surveillance.
The result is both awing and oddly deeply mournful–omitting the open spaces of the nation, and focussing on the investment of money in real estate–in an image that seems to trace the footprints of houses, without any sign of life. If the result is a sort of encomiastic image to the skills of transcription from satellite imagery, the landscape, such as it is, is an abandoned one, without frame of reference, as it were, filled with traces of buildings, but without other signs of habitation by the human and limited register of a natural world.
While one usually thinks of the arrival of web-mapping as displacing print, “Every Building in the United States“ invites you to use your cursor to navigate through its surface, like the virtual space of a video game, zooming into details, to bring one’s best abilities to grasp the current total literal footprint of all built space. In what presents itself as a melding of machine reading with a mind’s eye, a hybrid form of mapping and cognition that combines the mechanical detection of buildings with an invitation to expanded perception. Offering a sort of prosthetic extension of vision, emphasizing the virtual extension of the United States, the map abandons any imposition of indices of legibility, replacing them with an invitation and injunction to look. The “map” that was assembled with Mapbox software is an ecstasy of the visual, although the places are so oddly hollowed out, not only reduced to monochrome shadows, but oddly and eerily removed from the human hand, or textual legends and critical approaches to guide the reader; the analogy to a video game’s virtual space seems apt because the map invites viewers to project meaning onto their formal shapes, in a sort of urban planning and environmental studies done on the fly, and without much expertise or specific skill set, its abundance of information allowing one to make bold generalizations from what seems intentionally limited data.
If “Every Building“ presents itself as rather seamlessly melding trained detection of satellite records with human cognition and visual perception, melding mind and machine in a hybrid form of inscription and cognition that extends visual perception, it makes sense to ask interrogate how the interactive and print modes articulate a new visual relation to space, or rehabilitate and perpetuate some rather old fantasies of a disembodied relation to space. The “view from nowhere” echoes a helicopter or aeronautic path, to be sure, relative to the selected degree of scale, but echoes the transcendent view of space that ancients and early moderns long imagined when considering Ptolemaic maps. The dizzying counterpoint readers encounter between the spanning the continent as a unit and the buildings of any local site suggest less a synthesis, than the creation of an imagined perspective from which readers can zoom across a virtual surface, disembodied from terrain or topography or “nature,” through what is an anthropogenic record of the buildings that constitute our national version of the ecumene. The result seems to present an image of our increasingly atomized national space, in place of an interconnected network, fit for our times. It raises questions about the coherence resulting from a machine-read image as a map, and the place of machine-readable satellite imagery in what seems a scary prototype of the future of maps.
For despite the interest and levels of spatial recognition that readers are provoked to explore in the interactive map and its more local, but more legible print counterparts, which expand the detail of the national map, the lack of any points of orientation are oddly devoid of tips or clues for reading space, or the arrangement of a built space, or of how one navigates within it. If the engineers who trained computers to read satellite imagery for evidence of individual houses invites viewers to examine the patterns of housing at multiple levels–a site to look at the architectural ordering of space machine-read from satellite observations, rather than mimicking travel through space, the patterns offer an eery recognition of place and space, unlike we’ve ever seen it before in a map, stripped of natural markers or much textual apparatus, strangely static in its rendering of built space, oddly ethereal in its absence of color or natural forms, or even what we might call experiential grounding over this flattened footprint of every building, disorientingly stripped of their actual height.
–where blocks of black space trace the ground print of buildings, independent from building-heights, as if they prepare the basis for a more complete mapping of urban space, or are only concerned to measure.
One balances orientation and disorientation, in fact, in a way that provides an uncanny model for reading space: the space that one knows is abstracted, and one is challenged to match lived space to the screen space, and read the flattened forms that were detected by aerial surveillance of satellites. In ways that challenge any viewer to try to orient themselves to its level of local detail, the exclusive focus on built anthropogenic space invites a curiously tactile mode of interacting with zoomable of increasing scale maps at once embodied and abstracted from a spatial setting. But the local maps were particularly reassuring, notwithstanding their pared down, radically abstracted quality. Interactive and print versions alike invite, in their full display of trimmed-down detail, which invite renewed ability to pore over the infinite richness their content, and an ability to recognize the spatial disposition and distribution of houses even if they have been suddenly removed from their surroundings and topography: serving as a way to define and discover one’s own relation to place with an apparent materiality, the interactive map made of machine-read detail provide an uncanny tool to navigate through space, and uncanny relation to place.
For the map of the tracings of each building, whose machine read linear crispness seems to recuperate the drawn basis of a local map, seems to recuperate the hand-drawn map, but over an expanse no human could ever render by hand, or that could ever be read in its totality. As if an inverted Google Maps, rather than foregrounding way-finding tools or individual roads, each section of the map is less dedicated to routes of travel or sites of arrival. Instead, the maps invites interactively reading its contents of a map, by zooming to local details across the United States at scales so large a scale they range from continent to local neighborhoods. The comprehensive coverage of the continuous forty-eight might recall the one-to-one scale of the classic tale of the fanfare and fate of a one-to-one map made by imperial cartographers in “On Rigor in Science,” often translated as “On Exactitude in Science,” written in the start of the Cold War in 1946 by Jorge Luis Borges.
At about the same time as demand grew for an abstractly gridded space in global theaters of combat that would become the Universal Traverse Mercator global grid, Borges asked about the fictional nature of the relation of any map to a territory. Borges imagines the demand for unprecedented rigor in the push toward greater and greater exactitude, when “the Art of Cartography had attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entire City,” and invited viewers to process far more local detail than any would ever be able to read. The map “Every Building holds back on much more information than a monochrome mosaic of quite stripped-down form, approaching a similar level of detail, impossible to assemble . Whereas “the following Generations not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears saw that that vast Map was Useless,” in Borges’ fable, inviting its material decay to tatters, once “. . . delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters,” allowing it to become reduced to tatters of its original celebrated form, the infinite contents of the interactive map creates a haunting permanence, which its interactive form allows one to navigate selectively, awed by the comprehensive large scale map that the huge dataset contains.
As greater scale approaches an increasingly disjoined view, the mosaic of buildings, some recognizable, all lacking identification, seems to capture an atomized view of society, in its rendering of individual buildings without a formal frame, coherence, or unity, as if affording an atomized view of space fit for our time.
1. The interactive map seems destined to stand, in virtual form, as a melancholy snapshot preserving a moment of a built environment, and an unprecedented alienation from the natural world. Unlike the image of time-tagged buildings in the Netherlands, color-coded by century through a rich archival database by Dutch cartographer Bert Spaan, which allows ways to view how cities built outlying areas, the static database of drawn buildings is frozen in time. But its comprhensive nature, and far larger scale, provides a rich set to parse, filter, and cross-reference for endless fun, creating ways to query, clip, and sift buildings across an extensive space, or to zoom into cities from Washington, DC to New Orleans, whose flattened surfaces all but erases their distinct architectural styles, as has been noted, suggesting the database’s limitations as a guide, rather than a heruistic illustration of machine-reading.
But one can pan, with a striking detail, over the coastal structures in California’s Long Beach, and sail across the counterpoint built-up nature of its shoreline’s empty spaces, shore-line plants and facilities, and low-density housing.
Unlike the data sold to Google Maps, Bing, Apple or other mobile mapping services, the sharpness with which the data is read by machines offer viewers an almost tangible sense of place. The machine-read tracings of each building’s footprint in the nation is highly mediated, and disembodied and abstract, as well as augmented by local maps from states and cities. But the eerily familiar sense of panning over inhabited space that results offers viewers an eloquent form of orientation able to restore now-lost materiality to a map, orienting us in ways that embodies space in ways that are uncanny if almost eerily welcome in the level of familiarity gained as one zooms to known spaces, greeted by layouts abstracted from any spatial particularity. And in California, or the Bay Area, where I live, I can’t help wonder if its pronounced alienation from any sense of climate risk, or the increasing sense of the contingency in the far of climate change, is oddly absent from the map, and disconcertingly disorienting in the false sense of comfort in permanence that it brings.
Constituting a negative Google Maps or Street View, satellite imagery the nation offer improbably crisp coverage into whose totalistic coverage of the lower forty eight we can scan or zoom without atmospheric obstruction to explore traces of human habitation; if streets, lakes, parks, rivers, and what might be called public or civic space are absent from the map, the collation of tracings of each buildings render a god-like view of building density in detail, that pops up as a national network and switch to an almost fish-eye view of zip-codes, materializing a massive database in copious detail within a national backdrop that seems a negative image of geographic terrain. Houses string along major roadways, reminding us of the sharp discontinuities in the spread of inhabitants in disquieting ways, and the imbalances in our investment in real estate.
Housing seems to mirror the folds of the topography, lying along rallies and in dense clots by the oceans or waterways, revealing the intensive crowding we all experience of the shorelines, and reminding us of the increase of manmade ground cover and the anthropogenic impermeability of much of our coasts.
If some inland areas of the nation are stretched thin along roads, that, as in Lancaster, PA, stretch in lines of housing from city buildings into far more open spottily settled lands retain a more “organic” sense of their historical settlement–
–the ring of cities that hem in the Bay Area where I live, far more “challenged for space,” immediately suggests the scarcity of land and small supply of housing in the fold-out paper newsprint insert, both by the density with which urban over-building rings the Bay Area, and the low South Bay shoreline where coastal housing stands to be threatened by sea-level rise.
The special pull-out section oriented readers to their locations and the larger interactive web-map evoke comparisons between map and text, and the readability of the map, often argued point-based cartography has eclipsed or disrupted, though the new senses of territoriality they create: but if the grid may challenge the analogy between the reading of maps and reading of a text: the printed version of the map indeed forced the question of reading place and reading patterns of settlement in locations that communities of readers knew all too well to invite them to re-examine their sense of space, and relation to it, in invitingly provocative ways.
In the Bay Area, the image however cut oddly against the increased sense of vulnerability to climate change, from sea-level rise to swings between drought and flood that the permanence of the machine-read tracings of each building–from the disk of the Apple Headquarters to the Great Mall in San Jose to the buildings of the Tesla factory–as if the reading of the detail of the map presented a reconstruction of the ruins of Silicon Valley for future generations to pore over and study, as if to find the extent of the economic explosion of the region in a removed past, whose footprint has been reconstructed over time, and can speak across an otherwise unbridgeable temporal gap with the crispness of summarizing the results of an archeological excavation of antiquity.
The insert and interactive map alike illuminate the insights of reading maps has to offer, and the concision of the arguments and insights that they are able to offer readers who often struggle to make sense of their own environments. Offering a negative image of the network of roadways in Open Street Map derive from satellite imagery, ready by computers trained to read large-scale data in microscopic detail, the rendering suggests a nation of suburbs, and offers much less legibility for urbanized areas or density, which it renders in ways that resembles something more analogous to a computer chip, at times, than a human space, or at least not one of civic participation. It is almost a map for our times, a data overload presented in locally legible terms, where our data has been “read” and rendered legible, abstracted from any civic or social sphere in what appear intentionally disturbing ways.
The oddness of decoupling spatial data from any other expertise in a stripped down data flow makes one wish for further levels of information to be added to the map despite the attraction of its crisp level of highly specific details. The map is disembodied, offering far more than any on the ground observer could navigate. As much as heralding the acceptance of a new Age of Cartography, it realizes the historical claims of cartography as a God’s-eye view, afforded by satellite may reflect a quite atomized nation-state, defined by contrasting communities that reflect defined partisan lines as much as by its coherence or unity, removed from questions of coherence–or from reflecting an image of geographic mobility, compromised continuity of acknowledgement of civil rights and citizenship, and even even of crisp borders, even lines, and an inherent uniformity in a logic of the distribution of geographic residence.
The emptiness of spaces in these sub-urban spaces suggest a sense of emptiness of communities in areas stretching across a grid of roads. If Thomas Jefferson, who helped design the grid, mapped rural regions out of the firm belief that “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” as constituting “the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, . . . tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands,” the space of citizenship in the dot-based map of buildings removes their residents from any context–or interests–the footprints are removed from and space of civic activity or virtue.
The density of information that derives from a proximity of top-down high-resolution surveillance satellites collected at amazing resolution in black and white conducted from orbiting satellites with tremendously accurate resolution, able to “map” crop circles in chromatic detail, but offering even greater detail in local coverage, at a scale able to process local buildings–rather than crop health and irrigation that served as a proxy of agricultural productivity and crop vitality.
NASA, Earth Observatory/Satellite imagery of corn, sorghum, and wheat in Kansas, United States of America in circular fields fed by pivot irrigation (2006)
2. There is, perhaps, an exultant sense of dislocation and alienation from place in the machine-read panchromatic imagery of building footprints. With a remove evoking an aeronautic panning over space and place, but with a crispness of detail that the human eye can’t ever hope to gain, the machine-read input captured from the sky offers a disembodied perspective, to be sure, but one with an eery sense of familiarity the is most pleasurable for the recognition. The map was made by Microsoft engineers who trained computers to read satellite mapping from a huge public database released by Microsoft amplified by the New York Times through local and state maps of buildings’ footprints to create an interactive rendering of the entire continent. Perhaps in an era when we are almost at home with increased levels of surveillance in all of our daily activities and cell phone use, there’s even an eery warmth in accepting the detail of the zip by zip analysis.
The images suggest not only beautiful patterns that emerge in how land is settled, as the settled areas are stripped out from the surrounding landscape, in an eery reduction of houses to so many dots–which almost seem to be at first a measure of building heights, until one recognizes that they designate the cruder representation of settlement of density alone, but also an imaginary ability to navigate streets of increased population, as if to wander along the coasts of rivers whose level doesn’t flood, and even along intact coastal waters, which seems somehow deeply reassuring at the same time as we read daily of destroyed homes along the Gulf and Florida Coasts–and consider the same regions that are increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise. The absence of environmental sensitivity–if not utter alienation–masks environmental risks and invites false security by removing real dangers or risks in its abstraction of highly-detailed record of homes and buildings in regions we’re increasingly aware will soon be unlikely to remain.
Dystopianist William Gibson has warned “all imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted,” and even that “virtually the entire genre will be seen to have missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology;” a map reinstating the current configuration of coasts without a nod to anthropogenic change may seem absurdly shortsighted indeed, as if the entire map may be destined to be consigned to something of melancholy reminder of the past, removed from a present to which it bears decreasing resemblance. The point of the map is to capture the now. But where I live, in northern California, faced with increasing vulnerability of drought and fire, as well as flooding, in what seems a case study for climate change, the steep sense of risk and extreme weather stands at odds with the permanence with which houses are mapped. In the Bay Area, where climate risks have become increasingly clear, there is an eery dissonance in reading maps that suggest the permanence of housing, from the North Bay recently struck by massive fires to the seismic vulnerability of the land, all of which make us appreciate the increasing in the inherent risks of climate change with which increasing parts of the continent seem to live in the Texas coast, Florida coast, and Gulf of Mexico.
There is something disturbing at the reassurance of the tactile heft that the darkening of sites of habitation imparts. Although it’s machine reading of remote observation is a single snapshot of human settlement, the interactive map has almost representational–and definitely recognizable–heft. The buildings are not records of height–but darker areas mask that they are filled with low houses, and the palpable presence serves as a proxy for mapping habitation in the Bay Area that erases risk, lending a sense of permanence to its shores–as well as to the safety of its houses from earthquakes or fires–and indeed preserves the integrity of the homes, buildings, and skyscrapers, even in the face of the vulnerability of the region to extreme change. After the proliferation of new forecasts, even if containing considerable uncertainty among them, the persistence of each and every building seems stubbornly to have elided or ignored any sense of vulnerability in disconcerting ways.
The absence of the monochrome density of building, in the view of san Francisco alone, presents a view of overbuilding and congestion, to be sure, that omits the image of green spaces,–
–or the abundant habitat that cultivated green cover within the city contains in its exclusive focus on built space.
The map of the five boroughs of New York assume an iconic form as a record of monumental permanent, punctuated by the white rectangle of Central Park, or whitespace of Flushing Meadows, holes in crowded housing that extends out beyond Newark to the open salt marsh of Oyster Bay or the single-dwellings of Wayne, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Freeport or Rockville Center, in a triumphant paean to construction that would have made Robert Moses proud in the density of the housing market that spreads throughout Manhattan, but also Queens, Brooklyn, and the New Jersey shore out to Garden City.
Although the database is strippedd from the level of local detail, and removed from any actual expertise, increased darkness seems a surrogate for the density of housing, and the database reveals intriguing patterns of houses that seem a tease that almost invite the viewer to fill in more information to read and interpret the massive database on where all houses lie. The particular delicateness of the scattering of houses into the parks, open space, or what passes for countryside around the Bay Area, where we preserve a sense of the closeness to the country and its ecosystems to the city. The sense of a tacit proximity to place is partly confirmed by how we see the surrounding regions fade to light grey, as the density of built structures dies down, and congestion recedes. Many bees are cultivated in the area, and the hive-like nature of settlement across the land of houses nestled together seems oddly comforting, and natural, if misleadingly so, in the density of their clustering, and raises questions of their relations to parks, open space, and habitat that were explored in an earlier post.
But the fading of the region to wilderness is far more upsetting than reassuring or comforting, as the weighted regions of Richmond, the East Bay, and Marin City fade into the nationally protected lands as if they were pristine.
Regional zip code maps show the decisive mark of settlement on the landscape, in a refreshing and somehow actually reassuring way, but also oddly affirm the permanence of that settlement, and treat what is in fact an area of congestion, dense traffic, urban pollution, and over paved regions as a lacy area of disperse settlement, extending as a veil over the land. But if when bees are killed, or their hives disturbed, they give off a recognized scent able to cause or trigger an immediate alarm to the residents of the hive, notifying fellow-residents of an alarm, the dense clustering of houses is the opposite; oddly absent of human scent of dwelling, actually almost antiseptic in its delineation of dwellings, there is no trace to the human or lived save in the scattering of place-names–
–if the larger image of the Bay Area raises pressing questions about housing supplies in the coastal community that seems increasingly crowded by housing and over-paved.
And it continues as we zoom in, as all map readers now feel themselves entitled to do, into the neighborhoods we know, we can find the empty spaces amongst houses, and pause over the interruptions among buildings, and the courtyard like clusters of back yards we are privileged to possess in places like Berkeley, balancing a sense of the density of housing by the familiarity of the white spaces where our eyes can still rest.
Surely this is far away from the dynamics of space that a “map” seeks to offer as an actual guide to human habitation, or illustration of how man makes space.
3. At this level of scale, the lacy habitation of the Bay Area seems to acquire stolidity and a surprising solidity, gaining a greater aura of permanence, as a permanent set of stones or cut granite, recalling the reconstruction of a classical layout of a ruined ancient city, but suggesting a timelessness of an archeological map, which employed a similar density of the footprints of excavated buildings, as if a recovery of memory, and a lost common memory of a Republican past, treasured by antiquaries and visitors to Rome throughout the nineteenth century as icons of a collective mourning for a removed ancient past–
–in the widely printed maps of guides that derive from archeological handbooks, and constituted a collective act of veneration for the lost buildings of what was cast as a common cultural forbear, even as Europeans wrestled with new levels of urbanization, and a reminder of the monumental civilization of the ancient world that provided a powerful affirmation of a common humanity, even as it rehabilitated the slave cultures of the past as a paragon of civility.
These monochrome plans fashioned a false proximity in such powerful ways that they became part of the notion of building, and were included in the libraries of all–including, somewhat famously, Sigmund Freud. The black rectangles, grids, squares or forums, and rectilinear walls of a domus, stadium, temple, arc, or porticos were sites of obligatory reference, as the imagined sites of the collective memory of the past, to which a connective tissue still existed and needed to be preserved.
4. As such sites, the rectilinear forms conveyed a false sense of permanence and majesty of a lost past which, that approaches the commemorative and valedictory. The imagery seems mournful in suppressing a state of transience and far more than a state of continence, surpasses anything of the extreme impermanence of the contours of global warming, the extreme insecurity of home-ownership in the California fires, and indeed the heightened insecurity about the future, by investing the footprints of buildings and property with a new sense of permanence, and of finality, presenting the physical ground-plan or plant of the of the buildings as if etched into the landscape, the buildings now permanent blocks of buildings, indelibly drawn into the landscape beside the curving interstate, as if freezing the settlement of the United States on the cusp of the drama of climate change, when our current settlement of place may seem far more transient and impermanent than we have considered it for some time.
North Oakland, CA
As we move into the more built-up area of downtown Oakland, moving past the open spaces of residential areas, into solid city blocked of skyscrapers and larger footprints, the map is given a sense of material permanence, all too absent from the superabundance of information in most of our hand-helds, the substrate and record of a lived-in set of monuments, removed from a social space or social dynamics, but a human form of a built space that we know all too well. In the face of changing temperature, global climate disasters, and urban gentrification, the timelessness of the machine-read outlines of buildings carry a comforting sense of lack of change.
The expanse of Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Richmond that stretch across the Bay all appear as so many static monuments to settlement, bleached of color, locality, or place, but abstracted in so many machine-read outlines, as if in a literally endless map that we can scroll over without the confines of any individual sheet, an odd mash-up of the material and the virtual, mediated through the tools of aerial photography and a crisp machine-reading of the underlying terrain, in which we only slowly realize that we are reading what the machine is reading, but something far more deeply affirming of property values than images of earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes, and fires; the flat marshes of the South Bay seem removed from actually pressing questions of sea-level rise, and leave us wondering where the “Tattered Ruins of that Map” that was the last “Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” will, in the future, lie, or where the print and interactive formats of the map will lie.
These are not only buildings, however, but also, it somehow seems, perhaps sites that are akin to resting places, sites of former habitation, or even, in a dark moment of map reading, graves. The evocative nature of these black footprints, as if tracing a progress of habitation over time, serves also as a way of memorializing a site, and a trigger to one’s recall of a place. Panning across the Bay Area suggests a snapshot of a version of lived memory at one moment. It is, to be sure, technologically mediated in its entirety, and machine read, in ways that make it even more ghost-like as if a record of the former sites of inhabitation, and a memorialization of its previous habitation. The effect is perhaps accentuated as it is so drained of life, save the toponyms that fade from view at quite different times: the striking absence in the map of any civic space, any space of living together, mirrors the absence of any sense of the instabilities of climate change, thought from the 1970s to be among the steepest dangers that the world faced, they are absent from the map.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Graphic: Jan Diehm/The Guardian
Could the future of an underwater buildings of Silicon Valley be the landscape of ruins produced by the results of an increasing absence of contingency plans for earthquake, flooding, or fires? As an age of climate change brings increased uncertainty in climate projections in a climate world, the familiarity with place seems destined to fade. Does the focus on built structures turn our attention, ostrich-like, from the impending phenomena of climate change, and make us feel all too reassured in our admiration of the buildings we’ve constructed along the landscape?
5. One must ask what becomes of place, or indeed constitutes place, in this massive mapping of a data download that registers no sense of human habitation save by the 2-D outlines of built forms. Ursula K. Le Guin, longtime resident of Cannon Beach, Oregon, long championed the specificity of how we construct and define places, from the fictional worlds she created–Earthsea among them, or Kirien and Antares–or the community ‘Klatsand,” also on a strip of land on the Oregon coast, in the Pacific Northwest, to her advocacy of how sanctuary cities could resist the continued anti-immigrant policies which she found so shameful. She saw fiction as a point of resistance by which to define the meaning, value, and nature of the community in an all-important sign of making meaning, creating real commitment, resolve, and determined hope in the face of adversity, as she wrote as recently as 2017, but had also long insisted that the making of worlds and places were themselves critical forms of political action as they articulated and constituted basic forms of hope. “Klatsand” did not exist on a map, Le Guin writes in Searoad (1986), but was first coined and created, when the site lay in the Washington Territories. It gains its deepest meanings from the generations live, die, endure loss and recover, in a town that exists almost as a place of retreat and for the formation of new selves.
The distinctive locality of place Le Guin evokes, and what might be called its texture, is what seems oddly absent from the abstract buildings one scans in the interactive map released by the Times. The characters in L Guin’s novel confront problems of how to recover from loss, and find solutions in the retreat offered by the town–an imaginary place, whose name was made up by one of its first pioneers, but which stands as a rich refuge in her stories. For its outsider status presents, or preserves, a possibility for continued comfort for the pioneers and outcasts who inhabit it–from suffragettes to escaped asylum inmates to poets, where its land seems to offer a sort of resource for imagining other futures. And the continuity across time of this marginal place became, for its residents, a continued point of resiliency and comfort in apparent adversity. So much is apparent in her richly diachronic–or polychronic–reading of the lives that were made in the place lying on the open shore, decisively off the beaten path, in ways that a simple rendering of built structures flattens.
The fictional Klatsand placed across generations, rich with memories and resources, impossible to map in Euclidean terms. The power of place as a unique relation to the world is affirmed in the quickness with which a bereaved woman in Klatsand is overpowered by an image of the ancient, prehistoric settlement of a coast in England whose powerful memory of walls of weathered stone of small stone huts in Cornwall has lodged in her soul: it suddenly overwhelms to the surviving partner of a couple who lived in the coastal community, in Le Guin’s narration across the generations of women who lived in the northwest coast. All of a sudden, the movement of wind through the houses, the emptiness of abandoned structures that were moved through by dirt, dust, and wind, seems echoed in the wobbly fencing filled with sandy dirt. The image of the abandoned granite home, newly present in her soul, and image of the stones in Cornwall, which lodged in Shirley’s soul as she heard Barbara’s final breaths, captured the sense of an empty dwelling place on a cliff, and a sense of the deep temporal passage through place that is something of a topos for generations of characters–many of whom are women–who move through the town across time in Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand, and for whom it defines a needed space of self-definition in each of its episodic stories.
The fictional town near Portland, and only somewhat notionally in the United States, seems a site of independent traditions. And when the recently bereaved partner faces the children of her companion standing in her coastal garden on a cliff, the memory of entering the quoits of uncut granite returns as she faces her soon bereaved house. Faced with the crowded flowers of lobelia, roses, tiger lilies, and impatiens that her partner had planted beside the wooden house, she is overwhelmed by the memories of the stone megalithic walls of quoits they once saw. The stone structures that seem to double as homes and graves, similarly inhabited by ancestral souls, haunted the woman as she watched her partner decline, and arise from her soul as a hidden counterpart to the houses perched over the Pacific on a strip of land between marsh and sea; the stone homes echo the scattered houses along the largely uninhabited northwestern coast near Portland, removed from inland cities and with few year-round inhabitants, and the memories that they carry or retain.
The sparse coastal settlement in Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand describes an in-between place, where lives are mapped with haunting resonance across generations, haunted by the past, punctuated by deaths, across which female independence resonate. The image of the mysterious prehistoric quoits in Cornwall, slabs of weathered stone leaning inwards and covered by a stone into which the wind enters, resonate as isolated funereal dwellings through which the wind blows, emblems of loss of her partner and the independence of generations of women who return to dwell in the rugged landscape in the houses and homes of Klatsand–a settlement perched above the sea, somewhat eerily echoed in scattered residences found on northwest Oregon’s actual Sandlake Road, stretched thin above the ocean.
The houses become the sites of transmission of independence and resilience transmitted in the house, its books, sea spray, open ocean view, site, and even in its furniture, not to mention the tracery of foam that waves leave on the coast, and the images they provoke. So resonant are the ancient cliff dwellings in the sequence of stories to suggest a palimpsest of its settlement, and its own sense of enduring memory of houses that are also graves. The granite walls of these mysterious houses, made of slabs of rock with three or two walls, topped by a massive horizontal capstone thousands of years ago seem an emblem of the generations of women who lived in the houses on a strip of land between marsh and sea in Oregon, as akin to the megalithic burial sites, whose houses seem to similarly do double duty as walls of graves–or quoits–in Oregon, as at Cornwall, located “on the worn slopes of hills over the sea,” well-etched and preserved for a heroine by the haunting structures of gaping empty doors mark the spaces by which “the dead had gone in and the living had come out,”–as if such primordial sites were evidence of how “like Romeo and Juliet, and Tybalt lying there keeping them company under his sheets and cerements, and older bones of a older Capulets, companionable,” at man-made openings remaining from a time when “death used to be not a hole but a house.”
A house or a site, or a site of public memory?
The construction of these enigmatic monuments, modes of mapping place as much as residing in it, would hardly register in the machine read maps. They echo the mythic England, separate from if oddly the same time as Rome, which also delineate something like a sacred space.
The sites of the quoits that haunt Klatsand seem to pose questions of independence but also of deep continuities of dwelling places. If houses once were graves, the darkened plots of buildings in the machine-sensed maps seem openings in the inhabited world, akin to something than graves, or memories of ancient buildings, whose presence spans the known world, and lies not only at the edge of the built world, and seems something like an invitation to think of new futures by being placed at a remove from the presence of an increasingly overbuilt world, and lying on its margins, rather than at its center, and offers as such a sense an opening to the spaces of the future even in an increasingly hemmed-in world.