16. Graphs and “Mapping”

Erin | Conversation graph for The Promise (2)

Image by NixonMcInnes via Flickr

There is something inherently beautiful about dots and lines, or at least architects think so.  We are drawn to them because of the bright colors (usually lacking in architecture), freeform shapes (present in architecture, but often poorly executed), and endless ‘connect-the-dot’ game possibilities (why not?).  Most architects have a little bit of ADD or ADHD in them so a single graph can keep them occupied for at least several hours, depending on the complexity.  The best graphs will spawn lively discussions about the free will of man, the role of architecture in society and other theoretical notions.

What other reasons make architects ogle at a sheet of paper filled with lines and numbers?  Maybe we like them because they’re so packed with information; information that explains the reason why the graph exists, how many people agree with us on a particular topic, or maybe even explain why architecture is just so awesome.  It’s as if the mysteries of the known universe could be contained within a single point on a well made graph.  It is a puzzle; a riddle; a contemplation of man’s existence.  Part of us wishes we could make our buildings be so alive – so packed with inherent information and reason that people just go, ‘wow’.  Until then, we’ll be giddy with excitement over graphs (Almost to the extent of the character Marshall from How I Met Your Mother).

How I Met Your Mother

Image via Wikipedia

The issue I have with Architects and their fetish with graphs does not lie with the graphs themselves.  Graphs are wonderful, when appropriate.  (Heck, they can even beautiful.  There, I said it.)  The issue is that Architects don’t seem to comprehend the purpose of graphs.  Let’s start at the root.  Why do we need graphs?  The logical answer is, “to communicate abstract or raw data in an easily understood graphic format”.  Since people understand pictures (international sign for choking anyone?), one can infuse as much mathematics, data, information and jargon into a single image and still be understood by the masses.  All of this is to say that the purpose of graphs is to take an intangible thing, and present it in a concise tangible way.

Now let’s look at what Architects do.  They take an easily understood, pre-existing tangible object (or person, or neighborhood, or whatever it is they’re ‘mapping’) and they dissect it into intangible abstract parts.  Then they take the abstracted parts and divide them into categories, clustering them together and connecting the dots to make a ‘graph’.  Does this seem backwards to anyone else?  The once tangible object – previously understood and well received – is now a confusing abstraction, disconnected with all context and reality, serving to perpetuate the theoretical musings of architects.

Ask an architect a philosophical question, and most likely you’ll be met a week later with a print out of how this topic ‘relates’ to the cosmos, your neighborhood and the rise of capitalism, all condensed into an inarticulate graph.

That’s only the beginning!  The overly ambitious architect loves his confusing piece of string art so much, that he begins to see opportunity for…wait for it…a “mapping charrette”.  During these few intense hours, the architect scribbles furiously on sketching paper – retracing the lines and shapes of his newly made graph – and attempts to derive some sort of deep meaning from the lines which he just drew.  Downward spiral, I know.  Lines overlap lines; circles scribbled over other circles; spirographs worldwide are put to shame!  At the end of the charrette, the architect pins a single piece of paper to the wall, and declares the glory of his new building design based on the unrecognizable fragments of the graph he once had.  (Yes, a building was derived from all of that.  Yes, I’m just as confused as you are.)

At this point, the architect will attempt to entice you to sit and listen to his long explanation about how he arrived at his wonderful masterpiece of a ‘mapping’ project, and how his solution based on these arbitrary lines will be the winning entry for the next civic center in town.  Because it relates.

Save yourself the headache (and him the further embarrassment) by asking, “so, you took a perfectly normal, tangible object, and then dissected it into something that no one understands, and now you’re going to make a building based off of the spirograph picture?”  While the architect stops to ponder his response, sneak for the door.  If he doesn’t pause long enough to make your exit, point and yell, “OMG! It’s Edward Tufte!  And he brought the Napoleon graph!!!”.  Run for it while he’s squealing with excitement.

To come full circle, the Napoleon graph/map by Minard is quite possibly the most beautiful and well designed graph there is.  Let’s take a moment to admire it:

The Best Graph EVER!

Link to image source http://bit.ly/liI7tg

If you are intoxicated by the mere name of it, you’re probably an architect about to go to a mapping charrette.  If you could care less, run while you still can.  Then do us all a favor and stage an intervention.

If you’re in the mood to make your own map or graph (with minimal effort), try making a graph of your last.fm listening history. You can even order a poster of your creation.

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