Geometric Correspondence: Conversation with Min Kyung Lee


Min Kyung Lee is an Assistant Professor of Visual Arts, Architectural Studies, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

JM: How did you go into your studies of the manuscript and what were your questions?

MKL: One of the main things I work on is the correspondence between the terrain and its representation, and how the two are linked. The representation I’m most interested in is the map (what we now call a map) and the fact that we believe in precise correspondence, especially when it comes to maps or plans or any representation of terrain. As an architect, you believe a site plan corresponds to a particular site, or a map corresponds to a particular territory. But I think orthographic representation of terrain, as it has been composed since the 18th century—lines on a surface of paper—is such an unintuitive connection: how a line can correspond to a distinction between a river, between water and terrain, or a street versus a block. The thing that’s odd about it is that aspect image. It doesn’t look like the terrain, but we believe so much that that terrain is represented faithfully, with fidelity. And because we believe in it, we can do things with that representation that we cannot readily do without it, one of them being drawing and projecting and planning, and eventually from that, building. So for me the question is, what is the basis for that belief?

One basis is surveying. On the most basic level, somebody walked that ground and said “yes, I can attest to the fact that the line corresponds to this” and that’s verified through a series of things: mathematical calculations, geographic and geologic symbols, and most importantly, shared and standardized measuring systems, like the metric system. Another basis is institutions, and some of those institutions are administrative and legal; there are laws that say this plan, or map, is a faithful representation of the terrain.

JM: So laws hold the map accountable.

MKL: Yes, there are laws that say you must have a plan in order to build. If you have a property dispute, how is that dispute challenged or resolved? Through maps. And those are all legal practices. Even the way in which that map is drawn is legally regulated.

JM: So, as I understand it, this paradigm surfaced largely with the Nolli map in Rome, but your research is mostly in its adoption in France and Paris?

MKL: Yeah, it’s about the introduction of the orthographic plan.

JM: What shifted when that was introduced?

MKL: My research is precisely at that moment, when things are shifting and being negotiated. In the late 18th century France, with the advent of an intellectual and scientific culture that starts to appreciate the value of objectivity, for them defined as standardized methods of procedure. So this is really based on the intellectual values of the natural sciences, within which things and processes must be reproducible. The method becomes more valuable than the product. In accordance, the image of the site does not have to look like the terrain — pictorial verisimilitude is no longer the objective of drawing. The objective is geometric correspondence, which means regularized and standardized methods. Before this was not the case: it was about how things looked and it didn’t matter the method that it took to arrive at that. There is some generalization to this, but what shifts is that people became much more interested in making sure the methods are standardized, which meant that the final product was simply a result of those regularized methods. A major impact of this is the change in public education and awareness. Public spatial literacy changes so that more and more you have the public press printing plans, and people know how to read them even though they’re abstract.

JM: Is that learned? As it became public knowledge, people understood it?

MKL: Right. So for you, reading a plan is like second nature. In our everyday life, today, we take it for granted. Think of google maps – it’s essentially an orthographic plan. We know how to read it, it’s so obvious that we take for granted when it wasn’t, that this was a norm that was established, invented, really, in the 19th century (…) I am particularly interested in those instances when things don’t work, when we see the limits of those representations. Once you really, utterly believe that a map does represent our world – the terrain – faithfully, then you start making decisions based on the representation, and not necessarily based on the terrain. It’s easy to use a map. There’s this phrase that Bruno Latour uses: “immutable mobiles.” One of the things that makes this such an important instrument is that it supposedly stays the same, and you can move around with it, it’s a piece of paper, you can give it to someone, you can draw on it. That’s the ultimate advantage of the orthographic plan: you can have simultaneously a description of the terrain that you believe in, and then on top of that description, you can draw on it. You can have two different temporalities suspended on one surface.

And that’s also of course where things can get problematic, because once you believe the representation is accurate, then you start to think that you’re doing things to the terrain that maybe you’re not. There are push backs from the terrain that the material surface of paper doesn’t resist; as well as the reverse process of trying to make what you’re building conform to the plan…to what you’ve drawn. For example, they didn’t always put elevations and slopes on a map. It was in 1852 that that became legally required, but before then, what did they do? They made mistakes, they realized there were hills. And that’s when a line on a map begins to destabilize.

JM: Because it’s incomplete?

MKL: Because it’s a limited view. What that line actually represents comes into question. This is the ultimate power of a map: that it always presents itself as all consuming. Even when we look at old maps, and we know it doesn’t have this or that, it still has a coherent, complete image that seems impenetrable. And that’s where its power is, that it seemingly makes transparent and apparent the world, and yet that transparency or appearance actually obscures the very method or procedures that go into determining our world—our social world, our built world, our political world. It takes care of one thing while obscuring the other thing.

With that, a map doesn’t just depend on lines, but on blank spaces. Those blank spaces are just as important as what’s printed: things left off of a map are part of its logic for how complete it is — the very absence of things is part of the procedure of this cartographic logic. And that’s partly why we can believe; because it presents itself as whole.

JM: It’s not advertising its incompleteness.

MKL: Exactly; it’s precisely the unfragmented quality of it, the continuity of the lines across the page… that’s the seduction.

JM: That reminds me of a moment in Formal Analysis, in which were looking at the drawing of churches, and Eisenman remarked: “it will never get better than this, it will never be better than the drawing”

MKL: What did he mean?

JM: That the drawing is whole. For me, going to the church is the real, full experience, because there is light cast through windows at different times of day, maybe it’s humid, maybe it rained that day, maybe there are drops of water on the floor that haven’t been cleaned. You know, the realities of the thing existing in the world…the terrain. But for him, those are disruptions to the purity of the drawing—they infringe on that purity rather than contribute to it. In some ways, the map for him actually is whole.

MKL: It is whole, because it’s a constructed reality. Because you’re constructing it, you can control it. You are the creator. In the world, we are not.

JM: Damn nature getting in the way.

MKL: Exactly, and other people, god damn those other people. You can’t control it.

This relates to discussions about how architects have to deal with climate change. How do you build when you cannot control? I think that’s a basic problem. You have to think about building on a different time scale, under uncontrollable conditions, and that’s a paradigmatic difference from the modernist perspective.

JM: You’re actually admitting a lack of control, which is sort of uncommon in the history of architecture.

MKL: Well especially in modernist architecture. I don’t think that’s so foreign to people building with adobe.