Experimental Map

Think of a way in which you could develop an experimental map using images, sounds and stories. Some ideas… What else would we use if we didn’t use maps to find our sense of place? How would you map the sounds you hear every day? How would you map emotions? How would you map the overlooked peoples or places of Singapore?

In order to develop an experimental map, we must first understand what a map means.

National Geographic defines map as a symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface. Maps present information about the world in a simple, visual way.

In my opinion, a map displays one of many sets of relationships between different entities in a defined area or region. We get a sense of a place by understanding those relationships. A commonly seen geographic world map does not exactly tell us where a country is, but rather it tells us the country’s relative position to other countries. As such, I believe the relationships between different entities in map play a vital role in how we understand the map. Each map has one or a few sets of relationship to convey. For examples, a population heat map not only conveys where the countries are relative to one another but also the population density of each country and how they compare to others. Most geographical and scientific map relies on quantitative data to create those relationships.


image taken from http://www.geology.com

In that sense, experimental maps could be dealing with relationships that are more abstract and less qualifiable in other forms rather than a 2D/3D representation of a place. The first step would be deciding what information we want to convey through this map and choosing a form that best capture the relationships between different entities that carry this information. For examples, If I was to map the life of construction workers in Singapore, I could also record journey around Singapore and identified where the sound of their national language is present, its loudness and perhaps even emotions it conveys. Chattering and laughter could indicate a place of comfort and relaxation while interfering vehicle noises could indicate their workplaces.

The power of abstract data like sound, images, stories…etc is that it relies on interpretation to make meaning and hence could tell us a lot more information that is quantitative counterpart which was collected with scientific assumptions for a specific purpose.

In the research for this exercise, I also came across an interesting Atlas of Emotion by renown psychologist Paul Ekman and Dalai Lama (https://www.paulekman.com/atlas-of-emotions/) Atlas of emotion

image taken from https://www.paulekman.com/atlas-of-emotions/

In this work, they have beautifully explained the 5 major group of emotions (which they call continents), mapping out the relative relationship between an emotion with another, and also illustrate how emotions vary in strength and frequencies in people’s lives. I note that while these map deals with an abstract and intangible topic like emotions and does not relate to any specific place with a physical boundary, our understanding is not impeded because the authors visualise relationships through representations that we understand. Each continent of emotion was given a form and a colour. They vary in tone for intensities and are juxtaposed on charts.

state of anger

image taken from https://www.paulekman.com/atlas-of-emotions/

Interestingly, Paul Ekman consulted for the popular Pixar animation movie Inside Out. The directors of the film decided to use the 5 continents of emotions as the based for their characters. The story beautifully map out and explain those emotions and how they interact to affect our behaviours


image taken from http://movies.stackexchange.com/

Reflection | Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (Annette Kim)

Upon Kim’s suggestions on understanding the physical and social dimension of a place, I reflect on my understanding of sidewalk as a Vietnamese. This reading is particularly interesting to me because it challenges my views and understanding of the place I call my motherland.

In my opinion, the commonly assumed purpose of the sidewalk as a pedestrian path does not completely apply in Vietnam.In this case, the reality of social activities does not match with the expectation of the sidewalk’s physicality that affords flow of people walking. Firstly, urban sprawling and lack of coherent planning make city roads highly complicated, resulting in long commute distance (fig1). Secondly, it also lacks public transport system such as trains and buses that usually require walking to access the stations. As such, people naturally turn to motorbikes, the most affordable, convenient and physically easy to commute between places. This might have led to under usage of the sidewalk and subsequently attracts lower income groups for other activities rather than walking. Also, the open-air and flexible nature of street vending makes it highly accessible for both motorbikes on the road (buying on the go) and pedestrians. At this point, I think that Kim’s strategy on mapping spatial ethnographies should be applied because the sidewalk is not a separate element of the city. Its dynamics are results of interactions with other elements such as the street or residential houses, economic activities in the area and its people…etc Understanding the relationships between different spatial elements will result in more informed design mindset.

HCM_map newyork

Fig.1 HCMC map vs New York map (captured from Google map)

Secondly, the difficulty of policing sidewalks could be a result of cultural and moral conflicts within the mind of Vietnamese, including police officers. While many wish to see a more order and formal sidewalk that creates a better image of the city, we still linger on the cultural and emotional values of street vending. The practice of open-air market is deeply rooted in the agricultural background and clustered layout of many cities. As people used to walk long distances to work on landlord’s paddy fields and houses were far apart, it was common and logical practice to stop and buy things along the roadside. This could be the motivation for open-air markets in the past, and eventually evolves into vending carts for higher mobility we see nowadays. While post- war development in Vietnam has been radical, there is a large group of the middle age and older population who still very much relates to the society with open-air and road-side vendors. Many of those people are frequent patrons of street vending as they are used to this kind of lifestyle. Youngsters in Vietnam, no matter rich or poor, on the other hand, turns to street food as it is believed street vendors have the best-kept recipes and the food they sell is value for money. As such, while street vending could appear to be unhygienic and obtrusive, its value is not only for the livelihood of vendors but also building social fabric between classes. The questionable legitimacy of street vending is not only about its economic proposition but also emotional and social values that Vietnamese cannot deny, whether they are rich or poor, modern or outdated.


Fig.2 Patrons of street vending includes both rich and poor.

Thirdly, in Vietnam, property rights is a highly versatile concept and many times commonly agreed upon by people sharing the space, despite conflicting with proper laws by the government. Complying and resolving conflicts with the law is a strenuous and costly process which might be corrupted anyway. As such, often people sharing the space compromise and come to an agreement on how that space should be used, whether implicit by social hierarchy or explicit in the form of contracts and monetary trade. In such cases, it is a win-win situation for different stakeholders despite it being against the political regimes’ regulations and this behavior renders property rights irrelevant. For example, some street vendors act as security watchers for the neighborhood, spotting strangers, and alert crimes. Also, the idea of public spaces is not well defined and educated when it comes to pavements as compared to landmarks such as parks, library or schools. From my own experience, is many house owners assume the pavement in front of the house is theirs, and sometimes even rent it out to vendors or open up their own business. This kind of issue results from the lack of education and accessibility of information on properties rights, also the lack of transparency rather than the nature of property rights itself. While lawmakers should certainly consider ethics and inclusiveness of the law, the way the law is communicated or enforced is equally important.

The main question I have for the reading is that how do urban designer evaluate needs of different groups of people and negotiate the conflicts between groups? Also, designing and implementing public infrastructure or regulative laws is highly time-consuming and costly, while needs change as social conditions change. At some point, the original intention of a place might be irrelevant to the society it serves. How do designers then make sure the space they design is adaptable to changing needs?

Note : this reflection was originally submitted via email on Saturday 27/08/2016 due to inaccessibility to OSS. It was re-posted on 28/08/2016