Putting Berlin On The Map!

Modern cities are growing organisms whose movement shows a permanent dialogue between past and present. “Space is not simply a container in which modern life is played out," states Richard Dennis, "Rather, the ways we conceptualize and operationalize space are products of political, economic, social and cultural processes.” Jenni Sparks, a young London-based illustrator, shared with us her framework and approach to the process of drawing city maps. Her previous projects consisted in doing the mapping of both London and New York. An artistic project at the crossroads between technique, science and aesthetics, thematic cartography includes a more cultural approach to outlining the map of a city.


A map of London by Jenni Sparks. Image courtesy of the artist.

For this particular encounter, we invited Jenni to explore with us the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum, an institution that functions as a historical archive and displays the neighborhoods' architectural past and exhibits the inhabitant's stories. On the third floor, visitors can find a Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain map that covers the room's floor and provides a detailed visual of the area. It was the perfect setting for a chat on maps & the traces of Berlin's identity.

On Collective Identity

Jenni Sparks graduated from Plymouth University as an illustrator, yet she currently works as a designer as well. The map project started as a job on commission but has now developed into a cultural and graphic adventure for her. While it demands a lot of effort, it also comes with the perks of traveling and exploring the diversity and culture of cities.

Jenni Sparks peeking at an architectural model of Kreuzberg. Photo: Chris Phillips

The starting point of her research process is to read about the city. Once a draft with the main landmarks is made, she completes the space with the information given to her by city-dwellers. 

BAPs: I’ve noticed that you not only include objective data but also funny information like “sunshine here,” or fictitious characters such as King Kong. How do you manage the balance between these two options?

JS: Obviously, within each area you have the main landmarks by which you can recognize the most relevant places. But then that’s when the other half comes in. That involves talking to people and getting a feel of the area. Sometimes you can research the area and find out new facts. I like using symbols and humor to point out to certain crowds in the city.

BAPs: Right, like a wink to the inhabitant. There is a new and upcoming tendency in art where there’s a mixture between technique, science, commercial and aesthetic value. There’s also, I believe, new ways of dealing with the huge spectrum of representation in art. Given the amount of stimuli and available techniques, it is maybe sometimes hard for an artist to choose what to portray. I thought maybe the idea of a map can limit the possibilities and, at the same time, broaden the chances of discovery within one space. It would be something like enlarging space in terms of depth but limiting it in terms of reference.

JS: Yes, I think limits are very important. I often get requests from people to include certain parts of the city that are their favorite. However, unfortunately, you have to control or decide which feedback to include because otherwise it becomes a constant flow of information. I work better when I have limitation—I think it pushes you. ‘Limitation’ could sound as something negative but I actually find that it pushes me further to explore those limits even more.

Jenni with a drawing made by Kreuzberg residents at the FHXB Museum. Photo: Chris Phillips

BAPs: I’ve noticed that there are not many streets on the maps so far—the metro stations work as arteries of the city. How did you make that decision?

JS: There are references to important streets—we have included the main ones. Personally, the way that I navigate the city as a young person is by using public transport. All of the indications to go to a place are somehow related to them. Additionally, the map is mainly in black and white so I think it breaks up with colors and helps you visualize the city. They work like reference points. I usually put first these references along with parks, water, and then it’s filled in with people’s interpretation and use of the space.

BAPs: I’ve also noticed that you have an amazing talent regarding fonts and the way you choose to give identity to places with them. How does this process work?

JS: I see them as functional tools (the parks and metro stations have the same fonts for example). With areas, I research what they are like and try to convey in a type kind of form. Obviously it is subjective; if there is a especially creative area I will try to do something slightly different, or if an area is really rich I would use cursive. I don’t copy fonts; I create them after getting a sense of what could express whatever it is I’m naming.

Floored by the overwhelming task of mapping an entire city. Photo: Chris Phillips

Sparks tells me that one of the main reasons she chose Berlin was the attention to graphic design and typography within the city (featured mainly in U-Bahn stations). The challenges, however, are that more than one third of the city is green surface, either with parks or rivers, and the large number of bridges (coupled with the fact that all of them have names).

JS: We learn a lot more from the green spaces by talking to people. Apparently, there’s a part of Tiergarten where you are allowed to be naked! I’ve realized that parks are very important to the city so I have tried to include more of that. 

BAPs: Regarding East and West Berlin’s historic background, do you have any strategies planned to show that in any particular way?

JS: The first thing I want with this map is not to be presumptuous about it. I want it to be sensitive to the people of Berlin and to what they want. We have asked a lot of people to give an opinion on it and we’ve also seen the art painted over the wall. The general consensus is that we are going to try to show those bits that focus on the unity and reconstruction process.

Jenni’s maps portray inhabitants as performers; as active agents of creation in the place where they dwell. They transform and alter each corner as they interact with space, building identity wherever they go. Naturally, only geographical space is portrayed. However, what ultimately emerges is the internal space of the collective. So, Berliners, how do we see ourselves in this city that possesses both a work-in-process dynamic and a historical gold mine?

Article by Sofía Martinelli