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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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Archie Archambault's map is available on Etsy and locally at Broadway Paper.

Minimalist map circles around Milwaukee neighborhoods


There are a variety of ways you can map Milwaukee.

Last year, someone imagined how a Milwaukee subway map might look.

More recently, the city was charted judgmentally.

But beginning this week, you'll be able to buy letterpress-printed copies of Archie Archambault's minimalist map of Milwaukee neighborhoods, for $22 at Broadway Paper in the Third Ward and on Etsy.

On the map, dozens of Milwaukee neighborhoods are demarcated by circles of varying size.

Though it's easy to read politics and social issues into the circles, especially in a highly segregated city like Milwaukee, Archambault says they're mostly a design element on his maps. He's done maps of more than a dozen cities, from Amsterdam to Washington, D.C.

"New research indicates that GPS' are hindering our ability to create mental maps of our surroundings," he writes on his web site. "My maps aim to install a 'Map from the Mind' for each city, simplifying structures and districts in the simplest terms. The circle, our Universe's softest shape, is the clearest graphic to convey size and connection."

What I appreciate about the map is that Archambault didn't oversimplify Milwaukee and zoom in tightly on Downtown and its surroundings at the expense of the rest of the city.

I caught up with Archambault via email to ask him about his maps and his experience of mapping Milwaukee.

OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell me a bit about your map-making background?

Archie Archambault: I started making my practical maps just as iPhones became commonplace, particularly the GPS feature. People started ignoring the "big picture" of a city. A drive to the market was once a series of conscious and thoughtful decisions. Now, the GPS gives you the play-by-play, relinquishing any responsibility to think about driving strategy. It's a seemingly innocuous problem, but people really don't know what their city looks like anymore.

OMC: What led you to Milwaukee to make a map?

AA: My work led me to Milwaukee because it's a mid-size city in the Great Lakes with a robust history. Mid-size cities work best for my process because people tend to have opinions about most aspects of the place. Everyone feels ownership with the entirety of the city and can claim some level of authority on the whole landscape. Milwaukee seemed like a good fit for many reasons.

OMC: I heard you spent a little time here on the ground. Can you tell me a bit about what your research consisted of?

AA: I spend some time in every city I intend to map for a few reasons.

First is scale. It's impossible to tell how long or wide the streets feel when looking at a plan on Google Maps. It takes a visit to the place to understand what should be mapped. How important are the highways? Do you people bike or drive? How long do the blocks feel?

Second is the people. Who knows the city better than those who live there? The people. They know what their neighborhood is called. They know how to use the streets most efficiently. They can tell me if I've screwed up a whole chunk of the city.

Third is totally selfish adventure, which in retrospect, informs my experience of cities in a big way. With a mental database of urban structures, I'm constantly comparing one city's "feeling" to every other city I've ever visited.

OMC: How did you determine which neighborhoods to include or exclude?

AA: Because the whole point of my work is to simplify things, it's necessary to include and exclude certain districts for the sake of concision. I limit myself to a minimum 5-point font, and when there's a conflict between two neighborhoods, the more well-known, bigger, more populated, more historically-known neighborhood wins. If I were to cram as much information as possible into each map, it wouldn't be special or interesting.

And deceivingly, neighborhoods are only one small part of these maps. Structure, scale, transport and general urban landscape drawing are my biggest challenges. Composing the map is the very complicated first step. Where does the perceived "Milwaukee" begin and end? How do the suburbs interact with the city? Do people use the highways every day? What is the "big idea" or "main gesture" of this place?

OMC: I'm interested to hear about the neighborhoods represented as circles.

AA: Circles work for a few reasons, mostly design decisions. Circles are the easiest shape for our eyes to comprehend. Therefore, it's easiest to face the challenge of understanding a whole city when it's features are encapsulated in a soft, familiar shape.

There are no corners of neighborhoods. When you're in between four neighborhoods, you're not in any of them. Circles give a really good visual indicator of scale. If the neighborhood is bigger, the circle is bigger.

OMC: What did you learn about Milwaukee through making the map?

AA: I really fell in love with Milwaukee while I was there. There's a great sense of cohesion and pocketing all over city. For instance, Bay View is a relatively distanced area that has its own vibe, but is also oh-so Milwaukee.

I also learned a lot about the historical structure of a manufacturing town. It's a really walkable and manageable city, which is counter-intuitive when you see think of long blocks dotted with old industrial buildings. I've never been anywhere quite like Milwaukee and I think it has a lot of positive elements for growth.


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