From Iceland — Urbanization On Paper: A European Narrative

Urbanization On Paper: A European Narrative

Published September 22, 2014

Urbanization On Paper: A European Narrative
Rebecca Scott Lord
Photo by
Nanna Dís

Spark Design Space has a clean minimalist facade, a welcome place to rest your eyes next to the garishly painted corrugated tin front of its neighbour Kiki. The large glass windows show the dozens of posters tiled on the back walls of the building, each in a different colour and arranged to make a gradient from purple to red to orange to green in more subtle counterpoint to Kiki’s unsubtle rainbow.

The posters are Paolo Gianfrancesco’s print show `Urban Shape,’ up now until September 26. Each one is a map of a different European capital, derived from the open source project called Open Street Map, which is like Google maps but not run by a megacorporation that suspiciously made its motto “Don’t be evil.” As the name implies, it’s open for editing by anyone, much like Wikipedia.

A closer look

“The capital city of a country is unquestionably important for all the intangible things it represents: politics, economy, national identity. So it’s equally important to look at the physical aspects of what makes each city unique.”  

Each of Paolo’s maps has the same format, with a clean white border, the name of each city in the language of its respective country and a map key indicating the different symbols used to mark boundaries, railways, water, sport, cemeteries, green spaces, military and industrial zones. Paolo’s lines are thin, precise, and without any unnecessary flourishes. The aesthetic is clean like Helvetica, as is the palette. The maps are monochrome, each a Pantone colour. The loosely rainbowish gradient they create on the wall corresponds to population density, which is also noted at the bottom of each map.

The hashes and dots and zigzag patterns of each topographical feature are fitted together in Paolo’s maps like puzzle pieces. Every map has at least some of each of the symbols, so the maps are aesthetically unified while maintaining uniqueness. They point to how the cities were shaped, either by physical constraints like a mountain range, a lake or the ocean; or a political division, arbitrary or not. The uniformity of colour enables the viewer to navigate the streets and neighbourhoods and highways and other features of urban planning with ease.

Comparing two cities side by side is interesting, for example Reykjavík next to London. Iceland’s capital city fits easily into the frame, whereas London’s map is so tightly packed into the 66cm by 96cm rectangle that it’s bursting at the seams. Reykjavík’s streets wend their way away from the main one, Laugavegur, dispersing the density of the city out into the open green space. London is dense everywhere, a haphazard crisscross of streets and neighbourhoods and back alleys all cut through by the Thames River. These differences in the organization of each city are easy to see when all the clutter of a typical map is stripped away.

What’s this all about?

It all sounds like an elaborate infographic, and in a way, it is. Paolo designed this series to get the viewer thinking about what makes a city a city. It’s a physical as well as social and ideological construct. Building cities and urbanization is the extended result of humankind’s desire to be close to one another. This is something we’ve been doing since we were slightly hairier primates, and in an exponentially increasing fashion since the Agricultural Revolution. Excluding the odd few who want to live in the middle of nowhere (I’m looking at you, ancient Icelandic settlers), people have an innate desire for community. Cities are inevitable things that were simultaneously and independently developed all over the world. It’s worthwhile to think about how their form influences their function, or maybe follows it as the case may be.

The context these maps centre around is an explicitly European narrative. All of the European capitals are there, perhaps drawing from Paolo’s European experience growing up. Europe’s an important place, no doubt, and its development and subsequent domination of every continent (save Antarctica) over the course of hundreds of years remains obvious. The capital city of a country is unquestionably important for all the intangible things it represents: politics, economy, national identity. So it’s equally important to look at the physical aspects of what makes each city unique.

What’s art got to do with it?

The question that inevitably comes up when looking at a show of graphic design: is it art? The place it’s housed in doesn’t call itself a gallery, but does being in a gallery necessitate something as art? Graphic design has a few main purposes, seemingly: to make something marketable, aesthetically pleasing and to shift units. But then there are places like Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses where pure, real, true art is sold for millions of dollars, ostensibly to decorate the home of someone rich enough to afford it. In a traditional gallery, the price of every piece for sale is usually listed on the title card. It’s the same with graphic design, usually in a less obvious way. A price is paid for each piece of design, and sometimes graphic designers make something just because they want to, and don’t sell it.

Paolo’s show at Spark Design Space is indisputably graphic design, but it’s arguably also art. The definitions of such things are blurry and frequently up for debate. Maybe Paolo had no intentions of any of this being seen as art, but the function of art is to communicate something and that’s exactly what this series does. Yes, it’s going to be taken down from the wall, and each piece will probably be sold, along with the other multiples of the pieces. But this is what happens to pieces in a traditional white wall gallery, too. Artists have to make a living and really, galleries can be seen as just stores that sell art. So distinction really has to be made between graphic design and art? I contend that in terms of reviewing something hung up in a building for the purpose of public viewing, no, a distinction does not have to be made.

Each map that Paolo has designed and printed is the pure city, displayed like a cross section of a cell. At 1:20,000 scale, they’re easily digestible as a collection, and yet pleasingly intricate when viewed up close. The prints raise questions and provoke thoughtfulness about city planning, urbanization and crowding, among other issues that come along with living in a city. These abstract urban concepts rest alongside the physical representation of each urban centre to create a European narrative.


Urban Shape at Spark Design Space until September 29th.

Italian born, Reykjavík-based Paolo Gianfrancesco (1976) received a degree in architecture from the University of Florence. His work ranges from architectural design to photography to cooking to this showcase of his design work.

See Also:

Urban Shape 

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