On Imageability, Mapmaking, and Architecture as a Way of Thinking About Anything

Kublai was a keen chess player [...]. He thought: “If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.” [...] Returning from his last mission, Marco Polo found the Khan awaiting him, seated at a chessboard. With a gesture he invited the Venetian to sit opposite him and describe, with the help of only the chessmen, the cities he had visited.1

I’ve been thinking about maps recently. Several people have blogged about maps, and it was near at hand while reading The Image of the City. Maps describe the already existing in order to make it comprehensible. They are after the fact. Many popular approaches to software development begin by doing pure design, drawing diagrams and writing documents, describing the non-existing, or describing it and planning it simultaneously. But this form, documents and diagrams, is similar to maps in that it is, inevitably, an abstraction, an overview. Details are missing. It describes something, although something not yet existing in its future form.

Other approaches criticize this, and advocate little up front planning. Bottom up design. Organic, evolutionary processes of design. Design and create simultaneously. Describe after the fact. Mapmaking. Or, continuously make maps whenever there is new uncharted territory.

Map of Iwate, Japan2

I’ve intended to read a little about the history of maps (via Matt Webb). What effect did maps have on people’s understanding of their environment. If one were to imagine a time before maps, but when settlements were more advanced, more citylike—would people in settlements situated in flatlands have a poorer sense for their environment than those in settlements with nearby mountains, from where you could view it in its entirety? Would flatland settlements evolve differently? Would they naturally become more imageable (ignoring the presence of the mountain as powerful landmark, and important to imageability itself)?

For software, what are the effects of up-front planning and design on the imageability of a system’s design and architecture? In what ways does the evolution of bottom-up-designed systems differ, as maps are created after the fact? Each programmer will have his or her understanding of the system, his/her mental image, but does up-front design guarantee better imageability? Does it matter in this regard that up-front design charts the non-existing?

Rem Koolhaas’s quote about architecture as “a way of thinking about anything” has stuck. He describes it as “a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects”. It seems that this way of thinking would involve both describing the existing and envisioning the non-existing. Reading this has reinforced my belief that architecture really has something to offer for software development although something different from what is usually considered the point of software architecture.

Contemplating those essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to the comparison with the game of chess. Perhaps, instead of racking one’s brain to suggest with the ivory pieces’ scant help visions which were anyway destined to oblivion, it would suffice to play a game according to the rules, and to consider each successive state of the board as one of the countless forms that the system of forms assembles and destroys.3

1 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

2 Photo credits, Mikiyo Yamanaka, found via stock.xchng.

3 Ibid.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on May 19, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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