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Trail blazer: the magic of maps

Will Wiles

Is it really fantastical to value the presence of a map?

When I was much younger, I was an avid consumer of swords-and-sorcery fantasy novels. A large part of the appeal was the maps that often appeared on their opening pages – perhaps the most important part in fact. If the cuboid dragon-infested tome in my hands in the bookshop didn’t have a map, well, it would be a very tough sale. 

I’m an enthusiast for maps in general, but the appeal of the fantasy map was the substantial line of credit they opened in the imagination. All at once, without much work at all, a world appeared of mystical cities, impenetrable mountain ranges, trackless desolations. 

Of course the book would then have to make good on that promise, and they didn’t always. These worlds were often very alike, cultivated from the basic formula set down by JRR Tolkien, so much so that you could often reverse-engineer the plot from them. That cosy cluster of villages called things like Hearthlands will be where our hero starts out; the skull-shaped Mount Peril in the poisonous desert would be his destination. A bad map could kill the idea of a book before it got to the till. Some are quite unnecessary, revealing only a schematic or thinly imagined world, and look as if they have only been included because a fantasy novel needs a map. 

Which leads to the question of whether they really do need maps. Joe Abercrombie, probably the best British fantasy novelist working today, long resisted including maps in his ‘First Law’ trilogy, without diminishing his complex world. Fantasy editor Simon Spanton has often complained about maps-in-novels on Twitter. ‘If a map required an accompanying novel in order for you to understand and enjoy it you might think the map hadn’t been wholly successful in its job of being a map,’ he wrote a couple of months ago. 


All at once, without much work at all, was a world of mystical cities, impenetrable mountain ranges, trackless desolations

Spanton’s remarks led me to ponder the fate of maps in buildings. Nearly every day I have to direct delivery driver to a different part of the housing development in which I live, and I think of how much of their pressured time could be saved by a simple map in a prominent location. The types of buildings that do and do not have maps seems wildly inconsistent. Most hotels have a fire escape map in every room, but only as a safety requirement, not a courtesy. Large redevelopment estates such as King’s Cross and Canary Wharf often have maps, as do shopping malls. As well as a courtesy, this is often a map-as-advert, very like fantasy maps can be: behold the wonders in store. 

Other typologies tend to avoid maps, even where they might be very useful. They never seem to appear on housing estates any more, or in large cultural buildings. Transport interchanges such as railway stations and airports can be oddly reticent, sometimes offering a mall-map of the shops and including platforms and gates only as an afterthought. 

I wonder if this is a cringe on the part of planners and managers, the byproduct of two decades of rhetoric on the need for ‘legibility’ in buildings and townscape. If you need a map to get around, has a building or masterplan in some way failed? So the legibility doctrine would suggest. But I would disagree: a map can be an adornment and part of the civic furniture of a place – quite literally in the case of the raised, tactile maps that serve as attractive bits of sculpture and help the visually impaired navigate around cities. 

This might be combined with a municipal cringe. Maps used to be a routine part of local-authority housing estates and melancholy examples can often still be found, showing the amenities and open spaces that have been closed and removed. Ditto with places such as the Barbican. In those contexts, maps seem to have fallen foul of small-minded stigma against planning and communal provision in general, masquerading (as is often the case) as an instinct for ‘human scale’. It’s a shame. The more maps the merrier. 

On the map

The municipal map has made a comeback in one form – the ‘walkability’ maps that have appeared in London and some other British cities. These are good and to be encouraged. Although is it possible that they owe more to the mall than to the town hall?