Amoroso, Nadia 2010 The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles, reviewed by Donald McNeill
Nadia Amoroso, The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles, Routledge Press, London and New York, 2010, 192 pages, $53.95 paper, $155.00 cloth ISBN 041555179X (cloth), 0415551803 (paper), 020385537X (digital)
In The Exposed City, Nadia Amoroso sets out to trace the significance of a range of graphical approaches to the abstract processes that shape contemporary cities. The driving theme of the book is thus seen to be the revelation “of forces not visible to the naked eye” (page xi), which would include “criminal activities, zoning by-laws, population densities, transportation patterns, public surveillance, cellphone usage, air-quality readings, and other spatial statistics” (page xii). Given such a mandate, one might assume that the book would proceed to discuss the evolution of geographic information systems, which has grown in sophistication in recent years, both in the quality of its analytical capabilities, as well as in its representational qualities. The book’s focus is not this, however, instead focusing on a small group of design professionals who have worked with new capabilities in information graphics to experiment with ways of interpreting the complexities of contemporary landscapes.
The bulk of the book consists of four essays, each dealing with a significant proponent – or group of proponents – of particular moments in graphical representation of urban processes. Of these, the lengthy discussion of the impact of Ferriss’s visuals on Manhattan’s zoning is by far the most scholarly, providing an interesting outline of how commercial architects have always been complicit with real estate interests in the maximisation of profit in central cities. If nothing else, this essay sets up the book well by highlighting the fact that visual techniques have always played a key role in shaping urban sites in the pre-digital age. The following essay – a linking of Kevin Lynch, Richard Saul Wurman and Edward Tufte – is less successful, though it does tackle the importance of such applications to way-finding in cities. The well-trodden work of Kevin Lynch is exposed over ten pages of basic, and often repetitive, introduction. The significance of Wurman, whose work has gained most exposure in a series of American city travel guides, is never really made clear (though I could see many interesting features from the single image includes in the chapter). An interview with Wurman conducted by the author is oddly integrated into the text with little rationale (it could be noted that he also wrote the introduction to the book). The work of Tufte is only given six paragraphs and one image, which is scarcely enough to indicate how his work relates to that of Lynch.
The book then turns to the work of Winy Maas and MVRDV, who epitomised the boldness of late turn of the millennium Dutch architecture and urbanism with their book Metacity/Datatown. Amoroso presents a useful summary of MVRDV’s work, though without really exposing it to any degree of critical analysis. Finally, Amoroso turns to the voluminous output of James Corner, the influential landscape architect whose innovative collages of maps, photographs, and sketches have provided a genuinely worthwhile step forward in urban mapping practice. In reality, much of this is a review of the work Corner did in conjunction with the aerial photographer Alex MacLean, published as Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. Ironically, much of this work concerns the mapping of rural America, and how this work can be adopted to the urban focus of the book isn’t really explored. There is an interesting interview with Corner appended to the chapter, who argues that maps are “active diagrams that extend a certain agency over how the world gets shaped” (page 112), a position that he contrasts to the rationality of “the inert rational data banks” apparently used in GIS representations.
Such a provocative stance provides a good launch-pad into the second part of the book: the performativity of the images themselves. Puzzlingly, the book lacks a list of illustrations near the introduction, which did make moving through the book more challenging than it ought to have been. Doing my own count, there appears to be in the region of 93 images, the vast majority of which are laudably reproduced in full colour. There are some beautiful images here, liquid, alluring modelling of density in London and Toronto (pages 123-125), squidgy contours superimposed on the city’s outline; an eerie set of silver and black stalagmites showing London’s crimescapes (pages 126-7); or MVRDV’s chunky datascapes (pages 74-82), all brute colours, witty superimpositions, wacky shapes, and jagged typography. These visuals do steal the show: the clunkiness of the preceding narrative dissipates as one is drawn into these playful and at times provocative representations.
However, returning to a more sober note, the problem that the author faces is that the experimentality of much of this work make its application in urban representation challenging. First, its emphasis on graphic dexterity conceals the fact that many of the most pressing urban problems are actually too complex to be captured graphically – the city of technical reports, analogue statistical tables, lengthy qualitative transcripts remains still with us. It is also worth noting that despite the worthy presence of MVRDV, there is no reference to their Dutch brethren AMO, who have taken on the same task of pushing the boundaries of the urban graphic universe, but who, in addition to maps, have used collage, photomontage, typography, and concrete poetic techniques to explain the urban condition in strikingly exuberant, and telling, ways. Second, an obvious conclusion emerged from my trawl through the book’s images – that these images were never really meant for book format, and that most of them would work best in animation, rather than in the suspended life-form that they take in the book. This would be an unfair criticism of the book itself, as we are not yet at a point in academic publishing where the most appropriate format – an interactive website, most probably – would be the best format for the scholarly work collated here. Indeed, Amoroso includes a brief description of the work of SENSEable City Lab at MIT and Google Earth, each of which are pushing forward the boundaries of work in this area. But it does raise the stakes for those who seek to re-present these representations in capturing their practicality for the analogue reader.
In all, this is a timely and useful summary of some of the key moments in the graphical representation of urban processes over the last few decades. That said, it could have been a more authoritative guide. The book as a whole lacks a critical perspective that interrogates the assumptions and elisions of these worthy visual experiments, nor did it often acknowledge the limitations of these sometimes overly clever images. Social science remains largely a wordy process, and it was ironic that the book’s shortcomings were most evident in this area. The book will be of value, nonetheless, as an insight into how many landscape architects are taking the invisible socio-spatiality of their chosen sites more seriously.
Donald McNeill, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, Parramatta NSW 2150, Australia