Geography is a strange business for visualization. Maps have historically been drawn through exploration and conquest, compounded with superstition and supposition and only recently calibrated by modern technology. Even with a democracy of satellite precision, most of us carry around the idea of a map, observed from above, holding Europe and the United States in the center of our gaze. While it is important to have a common agreement on the layout of our globe, it is just a metaphor. Our actual experience isn’t quite defined by maps and globes. It’s interesting to keep track of where our mental maps wander away from cartography.
In the Amsterdam Historical Museum there are no less than three paintings depicting the city from a bird’s eye perspective, all of which were done at least three hundred years before the Wright Brothers took flight. The earliest, painted by Cornelis Anthonisz in 1538 shows the city surrounded by the patchwork of canal lined pastures and boat-filled harbors with surprising realism. Each bit of architecture is carefully rendered in three dimensions. A hundred years later, Jan Christiaensz Micker created his updated version replete with the shadows of clouds passing over the city and waves in the harbor. These aren’t merely maps of the city, but realist projections that placed an eye where humans could not, at that time, reach.
Aerial visualization isn’t peculiar to Dutch painters of the Golden Age, in fact it seems a common practice. There is certainly a practicality to this vantage for the purposes of recognizing places in context and its format fits nicely on a flat page. But there are also undertones of spirituality: seeing the world as an omnipotent creator or judge would. Judeo-Christian tradition has developed the idea of a singular god, sharing human design with eyes for seeing. Therefore the god-view of the globe has the first-person perspective that finds vanishing points for the perspective of space. In Buddhist traditions, however, space is depicted with flattened form, or three dimensions without foreshortening (isometric perspective). This is because the Buddhist conception of god is omnipresent and has no single viewpoint. Our mental maps dance between our cultural assumptions of space and our deliciously personal perceptions.
As a traveler in Amsterdam I had been giving a great deal of thought to the idea of mental maps. Prior to this trip I had read histories and perused maps of the city enough to create a slip-shod image of what to expect in my head, quite the opposite of the paintings of Anthonisz or Micker. This mental image was a shifting patchwork of places of interest, stories I’d heard, photos and expectations of how I’d feel there. It is interesting to me how this image fills in and how it is reprogrammed by the real visit later on. I can hardly recall what the pre-arrival version looked like because it was so thoroughly rewritten by what I found.
I arrived in Amsterdam by train, alone, at dusk and speaking no Dutch, a combination that put me on my guard. As I bustled with my bag to a guesthouse my mental map was in a fever of rewriting, automatically calculating distance and matching street-views to points on my printed map. I checked in to the guesthouse, established it as home-base and immediately continued my exploration of the city. I realized that when I’m in a new place by myself, my habit is to gain my bearings through direct observation. I walk a lot and I walk fast. My path seems to either be a spiral from a central location or a series of ellipses that embark and return to that central location like petals on a flower. In this way I can grow my range of familiarity with a place and start feeling at ease. It is admittedly obsessive but it creates a bold mental map. Even in the off-season, the crowded and closely-knit labyrinth of streets, canals and buildings of Amsterdam seemed perfect for getting lost. If I didn’t take care of my mental map, I felt as though I might be swallowed up. So it is the purpose of all maps; to fight against the complications of space; to get above the fray of experience and see things simplified.
The last few years have produced an overwhelming development of our geographical awareness. GPS systems are becoming exceedingly present in cars and phones. Online programs like Google Earth create the astonishing experience of zooming from outer-space down to a street-view instantaneously. Digital photos are now tagged with coordinates to snap them into a map. Defining our location seems increasingly like an entitlement that we are greedy to embellish. Our mental maps are evolving with the times, reflecting on where we’ve been, where we are and where we are headed. Its good now and then to drop a pin on that strange idea of place and see just what it looks like.