Maps as a Language 

Maps are a mediation system that should be adapted when transforming an unavoidable reality through the design professions. It is about expressing specific ideas through graphic representations, which mediate between different reality levels. To perceive the world around us is a very subjective issue. 

Book in Focus: Operative Mapping by Roger Paez - Sheet1
Operative Mapping by Roger Paez ©

Maps are understood as cultural constructs, as representations, a way to cope with the world. Maps use different methods to show how ideas will be transforming. They reveal their existing potential as being open to interpretation, as objects and things having that exist potentially, but haven’t maybe been realized yet. Maps expand reality and help us transform and address this absolute reality. 

These ideologies are detailed and analyzed through three main chapters: CONCEPT (The Operative Potential of Mapping), SCOPE (Re-envisioning Maps), and PRACTICE (Mapping Agency in Design). 


Book in Focus: Operative Mapping by Roger Paez - Sheet2
Operative Mapping by Roger Paez ©

The first chapter, entitled CONCEPT, puts the emphasis on the following sub-parts:

  1.       Operative Mapping, where the author explains that maps are interpretative and projective. They have a new vision for reality.
  2.       Positivity, Expressivity, and Operativity: three different methods to configure maps. They are all correlated and form together with the intersubjectivity of maps through operative mapping.
  3.       Conditions of the Cartographic Format, where the author questions, “what kind of looking at the world do we want to get from looking at the map?” It is about developing specific eyesight to comprehend and access maps.
  4.       Mediation Systems, where the maps are technical, social, and intellectual platforms, mediating between reality (objective) and design aims (subjective).
  5.       The Question of Intersubjectivity, where we understand how maps, as a whole mediation system, allow us to share our ways of seeing to incorporate different reality and fiction levels.
  6.       Structure, Process, Performance. Here, the author explains what makes a map, how we construct it, and what it can do. We understand that it principally uses the tools of scale, frame, selection, and graphic code to define a particular interest, showing a transitive nature for the map and its objective function. All are bridged together to feed from one another. 

In this sub-chapter, we understand that reality isn’t accessible in a direct way; it should emanate from the subject’s experience and senses. 

The mapping processes interpret reality and anticipate actions related to that reality itself. A map can expand reality by pursuing experimentation. It has the function of being interpretative and projective in order to generate new possible realities. 

  1.       Post Representational Cartography: we understand that the maps contain adaptive knowledge. Maps can be either viewed as representalist, meaning the reality they illustrate is independent of the user. Or as constructivist, meaning that we will never be able to see reality as an independent component. 

The author continues by explaining that maps have an acting purpose by having an effect on the world and how they have a dynamic nature, shifting from static designs to dynamic systems. This takes us to the conclusion that maps rely on the subjects who perceive it, as being an integral part of the world.


Book in Focus: Operative Mapping by Roger Paez - Sheet3
Operative Mapping by Roger Paez ©

In this second part of the reading, “Towards a contemporary imaginary”, the author puts into perspective multiple mapping techniques. The readers gain knowledge using a vast array of case studies from the Bronze Age until today. The main idea behind this chapter is to prove that maps are power instruments. They are cultural tools, which enable reading. 

In order to allow this diverse and expanded vision of maps, the author borrows from Joan Miró the idea of “constellations.” He claims that maps will enable us to create a research domain, which makes us reflect on how differently we can perceive things under various lenses, points of view. “Constellations” aren’t a single mass entity. In fact, it is all about having a continuum of ideas, permitting us to criticize and recognize some characteristics. This whole method is based on intuition and experience: either the map suggests a concept or the concept suggests a map. 

These ideologies are further expressed by Paez in seven elaborated sub-chapters:

  1.       Appropriation: constructing reality by claiming it.
  2.       Measure: knowledge in measuring.
  3.       Narrative: map as a text.
  4.       Geogram: inscribable earth.
  5.       Dynamis: addressing Time.
  6.       Emptiness: activating empty space.
  7.       Flight: beyond dominant representations.

Each one of these sub-chapters denounces a goal of mapping. Appropriation explains how we could misunderstand a map, be misled by a map, and perceive certain aspects of maps regarding what happened here and what the events could further happen. Measure for example raises the question of: measuring in order to know something, or knowing something in order to measure it. It is a deeply correlated question with the theme of the map. 

To sum it up, this second part of the book, “SCOPE’, puts into perspective the scopes of the maps themselves. Maps are filled with meaning, with reflection behind them, with openings, with interpretations and perceptions. Maps are tools that enhance the mediation between the mind of the creator and the reader.


Book in Focus: Operative Mapping by Roger Paez - Sheet4
Operative Mapping by Roger Paez ©

After explaining the concept of maps, understanding how maps can be interpreted and have multiple usages and understandings, the author explains how maps can be visions, construction, protocols or instruments in the cycle of conception and application of a project.

In fact, the author puts into words how maps can be placed under four different usages (visions, construction, protocols, instruments) through two opposite domain pairs (wide, narrow; internal and external).

–          Visions are the direct reading of reality and affect the way we understand our environment. They selected a certain parameter of reality and chose to put it on emphasis. The visions are usually internal and wide.

–          Constructions are the understanding of the construction’s surroundings through construction techniques. Their operativity is internal and narrow.

–          Protocols regulate the transmission of information through different aspects of reality. It is to cross different information in order to obtain deductions. It is an action-based logic. Their mechanism is external and wide.

–          Instruments are tools for the resolution of the design aspect. Their operativity is external and narrow.

Roger Paez gives a wide range of examples animating the mapping’s agency in design. He illustrates the modes of Operative Mapping through concrete representations, making maps not only a philosophical tool, but also a mediation device.

Key Takeaways

What do we know about reality? Do we have enough talent and objectivity, criticism and precision, to represent it? We cannot illustrate the world around us as an independent component from our experiences, senses, from the phenomenology of the place itself. 

When we make maps, we generate a certain reality that is proper to our point of view. We create new horizons, new prospects with the ambition of transforming reality. We make images nourished by the imagination. Mapping a city, for example, relies on the ambiances in the city, on the perception we have from it, how it influences us. 

When we say that maps are interpretative and projective, that is right in the way that we interpret the social phenomenon around us, our behavior in a place, its streets, brightness, smells… in order to anticipate what actions could be done on this site, and by the site too. In my opinion, it is a pure and continuous dialog between recognizing the existing potentials and expanding reality to transform the living environment. 

When it comes to mapping positively, cartography is indeed a rationalist tool. It is an excellent exercise for observing the entourage, learning, and enriching our knowledge. On the other hand, expressivity gives a voice to the subjectivity and forges the paths and modes of accessing new realities. Both combined together offer operativity. One cannot exist without the other in the case of a map. When it comes to any kind of map, there is always a subjective perception. 

I liked a lotthe example of the road map. In fact, it illustrates exactly what I am trying to say here: a road map is done through the positivism technique. There is nothing more radical and informational than a roadmap. However, we never see it as a simple map. Yet, we always look at it with an eye for analysis. We look at streets the way they made us feel when we walked through them; we remember small alleys by the food we tasted there… Roadmaps deliver in us the emotions we felt and remember places as representations, rather than just a technical document showing us the road back home. 

One aspect I found interesting is the ability of free interpretation. It is an abstract representation of a certain reality we can imagine. It is at the same Time vague yet clear. It could look non-sense yet, is packed with information and relevance. It is about perception more than knowledge.

The idea of having a continuum of maps, concepts, perceptions caught my attention from the very beginning of the SCOPE chapter. The three sub-chapters that intrigued me are Narrative (Map as a Text), Dynamis (Addressing Time), and Emptiness (Activating Empty Space; for the simple reason that those three components are, in my opinion, the key elements of a map. 

In fact, a map tells a story; it chooses to denounce a certain aspect, in a certain time-space, with certain movements, transformations and actions. Regarding emptiness: what is a world without emptiness? Emptiness is a major element in our routines; empty spaces are as valuable as solid ones. And it is primordial to understand and read the emptiness, to give it Time for interpretation, as much as we do for the things that look obvious. We shouldn’t take it for granted. 

An image on page 145, the map of Beirut in 2010, touched me profoundly. First, it reminded me of the wounded country I left behind in order to grow professionally. Furthermore, today, ten years later, things aren’t at their best, especially after the devastating explosion of the 4th of August, at the heart of Beirut, the port. In the present day, my capital is taken over by some political parties and by fear. 

On the other hand, what is the body without its movements? The world is in a constant loop, always changing, always moving, and seeking to create an impact. It is in a continuum of change: between the nature of reality and the way we perceive reality. This is why I chose to illustrate the aspect that interested me the most in the two pictures below:

First, a drawing that characterizes response to the artist Philip Lee’s life performance in 2010. It records the virtual trajectory and traces of his body moving in Time and space.

– 15 minutes of “Turbo Dismount”, an application that creates a map of the mouth moving with clicks.

It made me realize how much we create invisible maps around us. Every action we take, every breath, every vibration creates a map of us. The human body is the ultimate example of how maps work.


Dima Fadel is a passionate and curious architect, constantly seeking new knowledge. She graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Architectural Studies from the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts in Beirut last summer, and is currently pursuing her MSc in Integrated Architectural Design at La Salle, in the urban laboratory of Architecture: Barcelona.