This essay is part of Issue #1 “Agents Provocateurs: agitate normality”, a bimonthly series curated by KoozArch on the agency of architecture and the architect.
The effects of the climate crisis are characterised by their instability and unpredictability: flash floods, fires, high heat in summer, snow melting faster than expected, soil pollution at different levels. These events are real, yet elusive, because we cannot represent them with existing cartographic reference frames. We are used to drawing roads, forests and the ground surface, all of which have been stable until now. But how can we visualise events that transform a territory in a very short period of time?
The following essay by Alexandra Arènes introduces Terra Forma, A Book of Speculative Maps (MIT, 2022) and seven models for “living” map making.
How can we visualise events that transform a territory in a very short period of time?
Architecture has always invented tools to better describe both the existing world and projects that, by definition, are not yet in the world. Since architecture is a speculative discipline—shaping realities that have not yet taken place—it must imagine tools to make these spaces and materialities graspable.
Today, our environments are transforming at a tremendous pace. The Anthropocene questions our representation of them. We architects have to rise to the challenge, we need to adapt our design tools to this new reality and shape our projects accordingly.
Humans are not the only ones who shape the world! Maps that only describe the space of humans are no longer sufficient.Terra Forma's maps are designed precisely to adapt to the changing state of our environments and suggest that living beings and the phenomena that shape spaces should be given a central place. We do not want to replace traditional maps, but rather add alternative layers, a different structure, with the aim of showing other existing elements of the environment. We live in a plural and constantly changing world: the aim of Terra Forma is therefore to deploy a multiplicity of points of view. Depending on the perspective with which we look at the world, we act differently.
Maps that only describe the space of humans are no longer sufficient. Terra Forma's maps are designed precisely to adapt to the changing state of our environments.
The territory in which we live and the territory from which we live are examples of these different viewpoints—their boundaries often opaque and conflicting. If we were able to see this on a map, we might finally understand the extent and interweaving complexities of the territory. But that requires exploration through drawing, with the possibility that it may not work. This is an important point: when we position ourselves in these unresolved spaces, we raise questions, we highlight issues. It is of utmost importance to understand once again the space we are in—which we are used to represent—and the space we are moving towards. I refer here to Bruno Latour and his reading of the scientific revolution around Gaia with Lovelock and Margulis. Previously, space was Cartesian, i.e. measurable with units: a stable and empty space ready to be filled by us humans. The Gaia hypothesis states that space is already filled with organisms that adapt to live in it, triggering chemical reactions of their own. In other words, they do not adapt to a pre-existing environment, but adapt the environment to their needs. This is a radical change of perspective: how does it change the way we understand and represent landscapes?
The maps of Terra Forma see from the inside [...] These maps are "living maps", always under construction, spaces where stories and situations unfold.
One of the possibilities would be to map traces of the living rather than a space emptied of all life, available to be conquered or colonised. The maps of Terra Forma see from the inside, moving from the horizon line of conventional cartography to the depth of the ground. These maps are "living maps", always under construction, spaces where stories and situations unfold. This transformation of the gaze involves the revelation of an invisible or invisibilized world. It attempts to overcome the flattening nature of cartography by multiplying the points of view—describing heterogeneity and diversity, so as to ultimately repopulate the maps.
Maps become “objective” when the frames of reference are shared by many people who use them.
Maps become “objective” when the frames of reference are shared by many people who use them. However, we cannot forget that a map is made as an inquiry, an experience which gives a collective a shared avenue to a problem.Thus, maps imply accompanying the problem and adding consistency. If mapping practices can be understood in this way, then the maps can become “boundary-objects”: supporting discussions, visions, conflicts, identifying problems, shortcomings, connecting to other disciplines that can provide part of the solution. During this process—a participative and experimental cartographic rewriting of the terrestrial—the map is conceived as a tool for empowerment and cartographic notation as the grammar of a new understanding and experience of the world. In Terra Forma, we explain how we changed some map frames of reference—the orientation of the north becoming soil, for example—so as to make explicit the “procedure” of drawing maps. This procedure, which is a scientific requirement, is very important to us, more than the final maps or the aesthetics of the resulting drawing.
The most important part of the Terra Forma book is therefore what we call "the manual", in which we explain the different steps in the realisation of the model—the new frame of reference—which can then be applied to a territory to draw the map. The scientific procedures must therefore be very robust, explained step by step, so that they can be followed and checked, or backtracked in case of error or doubt. This approach to procedure is not foreign to traditional map making, but it is now "hidden" since it is no longer questioned in the maps we use every day (Google Earth, for example). Terra Forma questions this process and can therefore give this impression of a "bricolage": the doubts and fragility of the drawings are made visible; they are not "universal".
For each model (blueprint) and its map—when the model is applied to a situation, a site—we ask a "what if" question. These questions motivate “variations”, what we have called cartographic potentials or speculative maps.
The book, understood as a manual, draws on different situations and sites and connects them with different actors and their practices. The assemblages resulting from these speculative visualisations will constitute the foundation for a new kind of atlas.
This atlas will not map the whole world at a distance but will co-construct alternative visions of territories through model map making, using multiple complementary methods such as interviews, workshops with actors, fieldwork, collective drawings, etc.
This atlas will not map the whole world at a distance but will co-construct alternative visions of territories through model map making.
To start the new atlas, we have used the SOIL, POINT OF LIFE and (RE)SOUCES models in several projects. We show here different experiments with the SOIL model which aims to represent the entities, movements, and conflicts in the underground environment(s). We start with a factual description of the elements of the map and why it is necessary to reverse it—to show the soil and the environment in depth, to enclose the atmosphere in order to visualise the pollution that does not escape from the earth. In an attempt to go beyond the inevitably limited representations circumscribed to the surface, the SOIL map reveals what is happening under our feet, what is hidden from view. To show the complexity of the critical zone—its thicknesses, its interactions with the surface, the diversity of its inhabitants—it is necessary to use a particular projection that is quite different from the traditional planisphere. The projection of the SOIL model turns the globe inside out, so that the atmosphere is placed at the centre of the map. The atmosphere is surrounded by the ground layers, which are spread out concentrically. These are themselves enclosed and bounded by the deeper rocks that form the peripheral edge of the map. In this way, there is no outside, the Earth is limited above and below: we have to live, build, feed ourselves, within this thickness of a few metres.
We seek to explain a reality that we need to understand and share with as many people as possible. We believe that speculative mapping, rather than a disorienting representation, is in fact our only mode of access to this reality, changing our usual frames of reference to question what we take for granted, to see further, to question ourselves on our own preconceptions of the order of things. It is by doing this act of disconnection that we can paradoxically reconstruct shared representations, where everyone is “on the same level”. In the map of the Anthropocene, everyone is lost. In order to re-establish a non-hierarchical discussion, everyone has to reappropriate the map: knowledge exchange instead of endless critiques of the other's vision or opinion. Because in the end, we must all be able, individually and collectively, to answer this millenary question: where and with whom are we on Earth?
Speculative mapping is our only mode of access to this reality, changing our usual frames of reference to question what we take for granted, to see further, to question ourselves on our own preconceptions of the order of things.
At first, Terra Forma was a collaboration between a historian of science and two architects. Since then, many other disciplines have joined us in the project: earth scientists, geographers, designers, planners. The institutions implicated in this process are Terra Forma Equipex (CNRS) with Earth scientists of the Critical Zone (OZCAR network), the Atelier Luma à Arles, the Institut Paris Région, the Centre des Politiques de la Terre (Paris University), and the STARTS4WATER x TBA21 Future of High Waters. In this respect, Terra Forma atlas has become a project within our studio SOC.
Alexandra Arènes, Soheil Hajmirbaba and Axelle Grégoire are architects, members of studio SOC. Alexandra is Doctor in Architecture from The University of Manchester. She studies the Critical Zones as a new paradigm to understanding landscapes and their mapping at the scale of the Earth’s cycles: Gaia-graphy.