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Krulwich Wonders: Odd Things Happen When You Chop Up Cities And Stack Them Sideways

Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 09:03 AM


I don't know if it's fair to do this to a city, but let's start with Berlin. Here's Berlin as you'd see it from above.

Berlin from above. Armelle Caron

Here it is again, after an autopsy. The city has been dismembered, dissected block by block, the blocks then categorized, sorted and stacked by shape. Berlin, of course, contains mainly rectangles. It also has trapezoids, triangles and, down in that last row, weirdly shaped squiggles that represent actual city spaces. So, if you are walking through Berlin, the cityscape isn't going to repeat endlessly. There will be surprises. There are some totally irregular nooks and crannies there.

Berlin in parts. Armelle Caron

New York, on the other hand ... hey, I live there, I love it, it amazes me. Here's what it looks like from above ...

New York from above. Armelle Caron

... but anatomically ... I donno. Take away the bums, the fashionistas, the food carts, the cabs, the colors, the smells, the sounds, cut it up and stack it on a table, New York's grid system seems more than a little monotonous.

New York dissected. Armelle Caron

Same with Paris. (This shocked me. Especially because the person who designed this project, Armelle Caron, is French, so she had to be rooting for a Paris that's sexy and surprising down deep) but, instead, here's what she found ...

Paris from above. Armelle Caron

Paris dissected. Armelle Caron

So which city looks craziest when it's all cut up? This won't surprise you, because it has been around so long, having been a world capital for over a thousand years. It's lived through the donkey/cart phase, the chariot period, the wagons with axles time, the bicycle, the automobile. It's been rejiggered, re-adapted, redesigned, realigned so many times, it couldn't come out normal. It's Istanbul (or, if you're an old-fashioned romantic, Constantinople) ...

Istanbul from above. Armelle Caron

Check out the top few rows — these are blocks, remember — and then imagine wandering around these curves, angles, sudden narrowings. Walking that city has to be amazing. ...

Istanbul dissected. Armelle Caron

It's not that I'm disappointed in New York, not at all. I love walking Manhattan's grid system, but now that I've seen Armelle Caron's bottom-up version of Istanbul, all those crooked, lopsided, curvaceous streets, going off in so many directions, I can't help wondering, what would it be like to wander there? Would I be constantly lost? Would every turn be an adventure?

Suddenly I can't help it. I want to go.


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Comments [11]

Marian from New Orleans

I wish you had also done New Orleans. From the ground, it appears to have many crazy streets because the streets are organized around the river. I wonder if that is true using the method you used. Your "autopsy" software isn't available online, is it?

May. 03 2016 11:13 AM
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Oct. 26 2012 10:07 AM

I would like to see the dissection of Mexico City.

Oct. 26 2012 12:06 AM
Vincent from Québec, Canada

Hi, english is not my first language so bare with me please. I just figured that since i actually walked by myself all of these cities i can say that you definetly feel this in the real world. istanbul is exiting because of the history and because even with a map in hand you end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, which end up being exactly where you want to be. That being said, it sure is vacationally exiting, but a city like New York is clearly more practical when you HAVE to be somewhere sometime (exept for all the one-ways maybe...). It's less romantic, but you can get around actually doing something. You can easily understand that just with the careful street names, those with numbers following each other. So, even if i don't like new york, it is pleasant knowing where you are and having things in their right places.

Oct. 11 2012 12:17 PM
John from Indiana

I noticed this same effect a few years ago when browsing the world via google earth. European cities look like spiderwebs woven by slightly intoxicated spiders, while American cities use rectangular grids much more heavily. I can only attribute this to the much earlier, longer, development time of the European cities. Much of their development happened several centuries ago in a much less organized, barely regulated world. Roads started as footpaths, the shortest route from one house to another, and it just grew organically like that for centuries before any serious ideas of city planning took root.

Oct. 08 2012 06:50 AM
Celeste Pierson from Istabul Robert College Arnavutkoy

Merhaba from Istanbul! I am an artist living in Istanbul and teaching ceramics. A lot of my work has to do with maps....loved your interpretation! When you're here if you want company wandering I'd love to show you around!

Oct. 06 2012 04:37 PM
Cassie from Seattle, WA

Having wandered through these cities, when comparing my experiences with those who had wandered through them too, I found that, yes, the geographical make-up allows for more or less calculated styles of 'stumbling upon.'

But, so did the elements that make up this:

And then I realized that when we look at how we come to define a city, its smells, people, hidden treasures, our own version of wonder shapes our wander. Which is why I'd love to see more maps that reflect the path of a certain type of wanderer, or maps that show us just how much [& why] the paths we let guide us can be so [dis]similar from person to person. Like this one:

Robert, what would your New York City look like if you were to break it down this way?

Sep. 28 2012 04:36 AM
Ollallie from Sacramento, CA

I read an article on mathematical complexity and how it could be the hallmark of a great city. Of course, Berlin, New York and Paris are all mathematically complex, yet Istanbul takes it to another level. I am betting Istanbul is endlessly fascinating.

Sep. 27 2012 01:25 PM
John Nelson from Lansing, MI, USA

What an idea, I love this perspective on the nature of a place! Kudos to Armelle Caron for thinking of it, and to Robert for recognizing it.

Sep. 18 2012 01:51 PM
Kelly Hevel from Istanbul

Yes, Mr. Krulwich, as a transplanted New Yorker living in Istanbul I can tell you that you would indeed be constantly lost, and every turn IS an adventure--and that is the great thing about Istanbul!

As someone with no sense of direction, I loved the grid of New York and the fact that it is so compact, but just today I turned left instead of right and after five years discovered new worlds in my adopted hometown.

Come and see for yourself!

Sep. 17 2012 06:27 PM

be sure to pig-out when there :D

Sep. 15 2012 02:52 PM

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