Gerhard Richter. Atlas. Tafel 5. Albumfotos 1962-1968. ©Gerhard Richter 2011.



The creative process is an intriguing design problem of its own: how should you craft the method used to craft other things? This is the second in a series of essays exploring this topic through the lens of strange atlas, an interpretive creative process. Although this approach applies beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries, the essays focus on its application for designing the built environment.


There are reasons to start a design process by getting lost. If your focus is buildings and cities, the diversity of communities is reason alone: the social relevance of proposals can increase proportional to the breadth of design explorations. By embracing an inclusive and open-ended creative process, it is possible to unleash unexpected influences and inspire challenges to familiar reference points. Getting lost opens a door to the latent potential within complex contemporary environments. 


There are also reasons why getting lost in a creative problem is not a simple task. It is challenging to find coherence in the abundance of available information. Open-endedness may be counterproductive if the quantity of material becomes disorienting. An exploratory and inclusive design approach requires a structure to manage the results. You need a way to pull it all together.


The next step in developing an interpretive creative process is to establish a bridge between the information coming in, and the generative activities to follow. This supportive framework should both contain and inspire: it should function as a convenient reservoir of data, images, and research, optimized for easy access and viewing. It should also foster connections and associations to stimulate the potential within the source material. The structure must be neutral to allow content to speak for itself, and not superimpose solutions or connections onto the material. Optimally, this support will use adjacencies to spark frisson among the elements. It is a container location for interactions, a place of “temporary communities” [1] that facilitates unexpected associations and connections. A strong framework will let you get lost, but not irreversibly so.


A useful model for this is the traditional atlas, a time-honored manual for collecting charts and diagrams on various subjects. Traditionally, an atlas is a neutral structure that supports complex information in a clear and accessible form. It organizes both quantitative and qualitative information, and its historic role of providing orientation and direction is a fitting metaphor for a broader idea of cultural mapping and documentation. However, a contemporary atlas doesn’t need to resemble atlases of the past.


The Contemporary Atlas


There are many contemporary examples that appropriate the atlas form to embrace a diversity of source material. A book of essays titled Did Anyone Say Participate?: An Atlas of Spatial Practice frames a cross-disciplinary portrait of spatial practices, while emulating the looseness of the early Medieval atlases for “marking out the territory of emerging knowledge” [2]. The author Rebecca Solnit hybridizes the atlas format to craft surprising portraits of San Francisco through unexpected mash-ups of seemingly unrelated local histories [3]. The editor/architect Stefano Boeri writes about the potential of combining multiple viewpoints within “eclectic atlases” that create “an eclectic gaze on an eclectic territory“ [4] (a strategy that defined Boeri’s editorial approach to the design magazine Domus, where he assembled a startling breadth of topics with each issue [5]). In all of these examples, the emphasis is on offering interdisciplinary frameworks for speculation and inquiry, with no line drawn between the making of art, objects, or buildings, and the interpretation of culture.


Blick in die Sonderausstellung “Gerhard Richter. Atlas.” Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau. Fotograf: David Brandt, 2012. ©Gerhard Richter Archive, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.


A benchmark work of this type is the formidable project by the artist Gerhard Richter, fittingly titled Atlas. Currently on exhibit at the Kunsthalle Lipsiusbau in Dresden through April 2012, this ambitious work is an ongoing, 40-plus-year accumulation of images that has both paralleled and influenced Richter’s work as a painter. Starting in the 1960s as a collection of newspaper clippings, travel photographs, postcards, and other printed ephemera, Richter’s Atlas has ballooned to over 15,000 images on almost 800 large, individually framed panels, and it continues to grow. The scale of Atlas brings an imposing physicality to the discipline of assemblage, and experientially underscores the potential of this type of conceptual framework. Atlas provides “a stream of impressions from which images assume a concrete gestalt” [6], and though the quality of individual images vary (many of them are unremarkable and prosaic), the power comes from the resonance of the overall collection. The assemblage provides Richter with a launching point for associations and paths of inquiry, and by exhibiting Richter’s process independent of his finished paintings, the Kunsthalle exhibit reinforces the significance of this creative armature as a discrete object of interest.


What is compelling about Richter’s assemblage, and what is relevant to us here, is the way its structure transcends mere collection. The artist’s initial impulse was to find a process to better utilize his growing stockpile of source images for his paintings, “more a matter of wanting to create order—to keep track of things. All those boxes full of photographs and sketches weigh you down, because they have something unfinished, incomplete, about them. So it’s better to present the usable material in an orderly fashion and throw the other stuff away” [7]. Over time, however, the work evolved based on the associative power of the collection:


 “…once the piece grew, the artist began to orchestrate it in terms of an overall composition, establishing larger rhythms, conjunctions, and references among the parts, and instituting a more strictly gridded layout. That is, what initially had a contingent, improvisational, cumulative character has taken on, with time and with repeated public presentation, a certain internal logic and dynamic peculiar to itself. In this way an album has metamorphosed into a potentially encyclopedic project, notwithstanding the personal, provisional, and incremental impulses continuing to generate it. [8]


The exhibition in Dresden adds an additional layer of reading to Atlas: by exhibiting the work in the Kunsthalle Lipsiusbau, an unexpected parallel emerges between the exhibit and the building it is in, between art and city. The Kunsthalle has a dome that was highly controversial when built, but over time has been embraced as enriching the city’s historic skyline, reinterpreted from something denounced to something cherished. Like the appropriated photographs in Atlas, collections of buildings can also be re-framed and re-interpreted to create new narratives, offering the “urban framework”—the city itself—as an atlas for subsequent generations to interpret. 


A Neutral Framework


Based on these examples, a model for “pulling it all together” emerges: a simple, neutral structure that supports a diversity of content for the purpose of generating creative connections and associations. This can be done many ways: a “wiki” accepts photographs, website links, and other information resources for use and interpretation; a journal/sketchbook unobtrusively supports source material in potentially evocative ways. Even this blog you are reading, TraceSF, qualifies as a viable creative framework, subtly fostering a cross-pollination of articles and ideas.


These frameworks are neutral, comprehensive, and they support content without interfering with it. They set you up for the next step: interpreting the material you have collected, and creating work from it. If you can productively get lost, and then develop a structure to pull it together, you are well positioned for the next step of generating something new, something unexpected.





[1] This phrase is used by Hans Ulrich Obrist to describe the community-building role of the curator. The full quote is, “the crux of a [curator’s] work is building temporary communities, by connecting different people and practices, and creating the conditions for triggering sparks between them.” Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Preface: Participation Lasts Forever;” in Did Someone Say Participate, ed. Markus Miessen and Shumon Basar (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), pg. 14.

[2] Miessen and Basar ed., Did Someone Say Participate, 25.

[3] Solnit’s book is titled Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas.

[4] Stefano Boeri et. al., Mutations (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2000), 366.

[5] For example, Issue 882 (June, 2005) included a history of modernism in North Korean cities; the sketchbooks of a WWII prisoner; humorous chair designs; a speculative essay on the relationship between historic and contemporary architecture; an interview with the artist Annette Messager; and, uncharacteristic for an architecture magazine, only one actual building feature.

[6] Helmut Friedel, ed., Gerhard Richter Atlas (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2006), 6.

[7] Gerhard Richter, Text. Writing, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 350.

[8] ”Gerhard Richter: Atlas”, Dia Art Foundation, accessed January 21, 2012,


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