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Maps Never Meant for Human Eyes

This is what a 3D map looks like when compressed into 2D form, as only computers can read it.

Clement Valla

The above map of New York City, created by Clement Valla, is admittedly unintelligible. Views of the city from all angles implode on top of each other. Upon close inspection, random glimpses of yellow taxis appear to navigate streetscapes as Picasso might have envisioned them. Scan the entire scene, and it mostly looks like a video game gone horribly awry.

The essential data, though is intact. This is a 3D satellite view of New York City, expressed in two dimensions, from Valla's wonderfully disorienting web project "3D maps minus the 3D." You're looking at visual data meant to be processed by computers in re-assembling three-dimensional aerial views from satellite data for online platforms you might more readily recognize, like Google Satellite.

The result, not necessarily intended for human consumption, is part kaleidoscope, part cubist art, part commentary on the omnipotent aerial view of cities. Satellite images, writes Valla, an associate professor of Graphic Design at RISD, represent the "point of view of power": of drones and surveillance and expensive technology.

Here, these compressed satellite images look like something quite different, as Valla explains:

These texture maps are flattened, fragmented and exploded photographs. There are no singular vanishing points, no ground or horizon in these maps, and thus no hierarchies of information. Rooftops, facades, roads, and buildings are all collapsed onto the same plane. They collapse multiple points of view and times into a single picture plane.

And yet, the signatures of different cities still come through. Here is Miami:


Los Angeles:

And London:

In their patterns of roads and windows and rooftops, these images still look like cities – sort of – which situates them somewhere in between traditional photography and actual computer code:

These images are efficient vectors of information. But unlike a long list of 1s and 0s, or some other cold alien encoding, they still look like the objects they represent. They are uncannily close to photographs or human made collages.

That data isn't available for every major city on Valla's site, but you can peruse the project in more detail here.

All images via 3D Maps Minus 3D, from Clement Valla.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.