BEYOND THE IRON CURTAIN, A RED LANDSCAPE - architecture and design

BEYOND THE IRON CURTAIN, A RED LANDSCAPE



BY ZACH MORTICE
Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, compiled in 1979 and printed in 1982. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent, The Red Atlas.
A map of Vilnius, Lithuania, produced in Russia at the tail end of the Soviet era, details the speed of the Neris River?s flow (1.8 miles per hour), its depth and width, and that it had a sandy riverbed. In addition, it reveals the dimensions of a nearby bridge, what it?s made of (concrete), and how much it can carry (55 tons). Across the Cold War divide, on Western shores, Soviet cartographers still had a grasp of some of the minutiae that made up its sworn rival?s infrastructure. A 1980 map of San Francisco points out that the Oakland Bay Bridge is constructed of metal and rises between 171 and 213 feet above the water. One of perhaps a million maps made by the Soviets to secretly and conclusively chart the surface of the earth, it?s a relic from what might be the largest and most ambitious cartography effort in history.
Though much of this story?s origins and methods are shrouded in secrecy, British authors and map enthusiasts John Davies and Alexander Kent have found a way to break open these mysteries with a beautiful and brief cartographic volume. Their book, The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World (University of Chicago Press, 2017), focuses on how these maps were assembled in covert and overt ways, and how Davies and Kent decoded them, relentlessly tracing them back to their source documents.
A 1991 map of Vilnius, Lithuania. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent, The Red Atlas. The maps offer an absurdly expansive range of icons and symbols: ?The most comprehensive system of symbology and annotation ever devised,? the authors write. And the scope of representation here is intensely landscape based. In addition to the depth, width, and flow of rivers, there are icons to indicate endless littoral landforms (from broad beaches to sheer cliffs) and the types of trees in forests?their height, girth, spacing, and species. The mapmakers were tracking the crops planted, the soil types they grow in, and the minerals that exist beneath the surface. There are all manner of topographical distinctions, including the seasonal availability of mountain passes. It may well be the most robust cartographic icon language for landscapes ever invented.
Washington, D.C., compiled in 1973, printed in 1975. Image courtesy of John Davies and Alexander Kent, The Red Atlas.
Infrastructure is a primary concern for these maps, so divisions between national and regional rail systems are drawn carefully, the dredge depths of harbors plotted, and the gauge of railway tracks cataloged. Not all of these elements are present everywhere. They?re much less common in U.S. and United Kingdom maps, suggesting that where they do occur, a spy likely preceded them.
This description of the land outside Cambridge, England, makes it clear the ultimate goal of these maps: ?When wet, the clay becomes wate...
_MURLDELAFUENTE http://landscapearchitecturemagazine.org/

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