For all of its natural beauty, San Francisco is a city defined by its human imprint: zigzagging roads, floating bridges, touristy cable cars, and squashed, expensive housing. But in San Francisco Contours, a topographical print by Abe Bingham, all of this urbanity has been stripped away to highlight the hills of the city.
The piece was inspired by a combination of San Francisco’s unique landscape and the general failings of traditional topographical maps, which are, on one hand, a triumph of data visualization, and on the other, very difficult for the average person to decipher. As a fix, Bingham built his maps in full 3-D, exaggerating altitude by 2.5x to simulate the view of a pedestrian rather than a flyby.
To add to the complexity of the project, however, topographical maps don’t tend to mesh well with intricate street maps. And as mentioned above, in San Francisco’s case, the interplay of streets and landscape—or man and nature—is so key to its identity.
"[San Francisco] is unique in that its streets were laid out without any regard for its hills (at least until the middle of the 20th century). While streets in most cities follow the curves of hills and valleys, San Francisco's streets were drawn on flat paper and imposed upon its hills, deviating from their grid only occasionally," Bingham tells Co.Design. "Because of this, it can be very hard to find the hills by looking at a normal street map. If the hills didn't make much of an impact on the street grid, the grid most definitely had an impact on the hills (think of any leaping car chase scene ever staged in this town)."
Even without any labeled streets on Bingham’s map, you can still make out ghosts of the city grid (what you might call either carvings or scars in the landscape, depending on your natural politics). And in this sense, San Francisco Contours is a fascinating project: It’s a topographical map for the urban explorer rather than the mountaineer. And did we mention its prints start at just $15 on Kickstarter?