EPFL teaching unit AR-476 UE U: Cartography.
Architecture Master 1 and 3, 5h weekly × 12 weeks, 2015–present.
UE U: Cartography


Maps are visual tools for thinking about the world at many scales. They shape scientific hypotheses, organize political and military power, delineate private property, and reflect mental conceptions about landscapes and nonhuman nature. In the Western tradition, medieval maps were less territorial descriptions than conceptual cosmologies, occasionally depicting biblical stories, mythology, history, flora, fauna, and exotic peoples and species.1 With the advent of modernity, an important shift took place. Cartesian perspectives began to trace the world in relation to a fixed human subject, while mathematical God's eye views surveyed the land from an abstract elevated “nowhere.” Accurate maps—stripped of all elements of fantasy, religious belief, and authorship—became essential tools for modern scholars and states who sought rational progress through scientific prediction, social engineering, and planning.2 Cartography became concerned with analyzing and measuring the res extensa, and the land survey emerged as a crucial instrument of capitalist development.
   As Neil Smith explained, capitalism required the invention of “space as emptiness, as a universal receptacle in which objects exist and events occur, as a frame of reference, a coordinate system […] within which all reality exists.”3 But the flip side of treating the environment as an abstract container is treating architecture as an abstract object, disembedded, consumed, and aestheticized for its own sake. From this radical separation, maps become quantitative systems for managing phenomena, while buildings become circulating commodities for the valorization of land rent. In today’s context of ecological crisis, this separation is visibly contradictory. The environment is not a backdrop or a container of natural resources, just as architecture is not a collection of objects floating in a vacuum.4 Buildings and landscapes constitute each other dialectically, regardless of whether their relationship is collaborative or antagonistic, and cartography can render this dynamic concrete.
    This teaching unit proposes a cartographic method for embedding architecture in its environment. By mapping buildings in their space and time, we reveal the invisible backgrounds that make up their material conditions of possibility. The aesthetic choices conveyed in the so-called “object” thus appear no longer disinterested, but complex, as a rich totality of environmental relations. Throughout the course, students should keep in mind the following questions: how should architecture reflect society's relation to the environment; how should it constitute a critique of said relation; and how should it predict a collective ideal?

  1. The term “cartography” was coined at the beginning of the nineteenth century, based on the Latin charta, meaning “paper” or “map,” and -graphia, meaning “description,” which derives from graphein, meaning “to write” or “to draw.” It is an umbrella concept derived from older terms such as geography, chorography, and topography, respectively meaning the description of geo or “earth,” khōra or “region,” and topos or “place.”
  2. See, for example, Marcelo Escolar, “Exploration, Cartography and Modernization of State Power,” in State/Space: A Reader, ed. Neil Brenner et al. (Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2003), 29–52.
  3. Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (London and New York: Verso, 2010), 95.
  4. “Perhaps nothing is more irrelevant to architecture than the notion that it is the realization of a design qua idea. Far more dominant factors are the dialogue with and persuasion of the client and the collaboration with other staff members. The design as initially conceived is destined to be transformed during the course of its execution. […] No architect can predict the results of construction. No architecture exists out of context. Architecture is an event par excellence.” Kojin Karatani, Architecture as Metaphor: Language, Number, Money (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 126.

      Student Work
  1. Valentine Compain & Clémentine Artru, Alhambra, Granada, UE U 2018.
  2. Manuela Schönenberger & Anna Pontais, FAUP, Porto, UE U 2017.
  3. Pierre Wüthrich & Bérénice Aubry, Colosseo Quadrato, Rome, UE U 2018.
  4. Carson Michaelis, La Concha, Las Vegas, UE U 2022.
  5. Odile Doepper & Gala Urroz, Public Swimming Pools, Bellinzona, UE U 2018.
  6. Isabelle Cocheveleu & Loris Ventrami, Piscina das Marés, Porto, UE U 2017.
  7. Loren Li and Sophie Kotter, Hong Kong, UE U 2016.
  8. Julie Lerfald, Walensee, UE U 2015.
  9. Gaël Zuber & Sara Steiner, Bazaar of Isfahan, UE U 2018.
  10. Rita D’Elia & Silvia Narducci, La Barca, Bologna, UE U 2022.
  11. Josep Coll, Quartiere Zen, Palermo, UE U 2022.