Big Map

by Joost Grootens

As a book designer, I like to juxtapose information on opposing pages. The space between the pages, across the fold, is where the story is told. This technique is especially effective as a narrative device when designing atlases. An aerial photograph on one page with a map on the next, a historic recording followed by a future projection, statistical data cross-referenced with a regional map—here is where the story of time is told. These various kinds of information graphics challenge each other—and us, the reader—about what the true representation of a city is. 

Through my experience in map making, I have come to realize that it is difficult to tell a story with a single map. And it was exactly this challenge that I was asked to do this past year, to design a single map of Belgium for the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. I intended to show that the country is not a network of cities but a continuous “soup” of functions where residential areas, agriculture, industry, and nature coexist and blend. In the end, I used scale as a means to give the map two faces, to let the map tell two stories: one from a distance and one from up close.

The map I made for the Belgian Pavilion was big. At 15 meters by 4 meters (50 feet by 13 feet), it is by far the biggest map I have ever made. The map was created using geographic information systems (GIS) data projected on a 50-by-50-meter (164-by-164-foot) grid to a 1:2,000 scale. From a distance, where the grid is visible and clear, pixels emerge—the map appears digital. When examined closer, one sees that the legend of the map consists of axonometric drawings, and so the map feels almost handmade. The pixels dissolve into a hand-drawn landscape. Data becomes reality.

Joost Grootens is a graphic designer of books, atlases, and maps, and head of the department of Information Design at Design Academy Eindhoven’s Master program.