Hung Out to Dry: A Taxonomy of City Blocks

Rank the blocks of some of the world's most famous cities by size instead of location, and this is what they look like.



Hung Out to Dry: A Taxonomy of City Blocks

Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo's cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. 

In an urbanist twist to the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, Polo the Venetian regales Khan the Mongolian with glimpses of some fabulous cities in the latter's huge empire. The stories, collected in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, oscillate between truth and fiction. Each of Polo's cities displays one unique, defining feature. But these different cities may be nothing more than extrapolated miniatures of the homesick Venetian's hometown. 

Imagined cities built from the fragments of real ones: something similar is happening in Tout bien rangé, a cartography-based artwork by French artist Armelle Caron. It consists of a series of map pairs, one a blind, but recognisably real city map, the other what looks like an assembly kit for that same city, with its blocks impracticably but neatly arranged by shape and size.

The transformational process involved is threefold: the city on map A is deconstructed, its blocks are classified for size and shape, then reassembled in rows, arranged by type, on map B. The result is reminiscent of butterfly cases and other taxonomical tableaux rather than of a street map. More Linnaeus than Mercator. 

In what the artist herself calls Anagrammes graphiques de plans de villes, Caron strips cities of their spatial context. Roads and rivers become irrelevant, districts and parks disappear. The relationship between built-up areas and empty spaces is obliterated. 

The city is hung out to dry by its smallest constituent parts. The cartographic compact - maps, however imperfect and partial on paper, are reliable real-world guides - is nullified. The city is un-mapped. Is it therefore also de-coded? The former term implies a loss of information: the city is disassembled, put in storage. The latter suggests a revelation of hidden knowledge: the fragments are pieces of an urban puzzle.

For her project, Caron has selected a few world cities: Paris, Berlin, New York, Istanbul. She added a few major French cities - Le Havre and Montpellier - plus the small and new Florida city of Tamarac.  

Berlin's cityscape is reasonably easy to spot thanks to the large Tiergarten park in the upper left quadrant (not to be confused with the rather abrupt cutout in the upper left corner - the map's legend?) Its city blocks are rearranged as if hanging out to dry, or like rows of saws in a carpenter's workshop.

Istanbul's curved streets hint at a hilly topography, none of which remains in the stripped version of the map. If this is on the same scale as Berlin's, this map would indicate that the average Istanbul city block is much smaller, and much more rectangular, than your ordinary Berlin one.

Manhattan, the East River, Brooklyn: New York has one of most iconic cityscapes in the world, and is thus easily recognisable. As its real-life grid is already very rectangular, the taxonomy of its city blocks looks very uniform indeed - at least compared to those of 'organic', Old World cities.  

Tamarac is the most eccentric addition. A recent Florida development (built in the 1960s by a car-wash millionaire - turn the name around to get Car-A-Mat), it's constructed around a regular grid but inside each of those displays the intricate twists and turns of planned suburbia, reflected in a remarkable amount of L-shapes in the abstracted map.

Paris is a series of wide, 19th-century boulevards (reputedly wide enough to facilitate the advance of artillery into the frequently rebellious city) imposed upon a medieval spiderweb of streets. The minuteness of that grid is reflected by the intricacy the miniature blocks on the map on the right.

As its name indicates, Le Havre is a harbour town. Extensive docks determine the look of the city's southern and central areas. The relatively large blocks in the city's southeast (the industrial area?) break the monotony of the rows upon rows of smaller blocks in the right hand side map.

The Montpellier maps must be one of the artist's later works. It just feels like Caron has got the art of displaying a city down to a tee, both the 'organic' version (filling out the square of the map quite nicely) and the 'abstract' version (a visually pleasing alteration of smaller and larger blocks).

Caron's original exhibition of these works was accompanied by wooden versions of some of the city blocks depicted here, for visitors to rearrange as they saw fit. The map grid - and manipulations thereof - are frequent reoccurrence in Caron's work.


Many thanks to all who sent in these maps (original context here on the artists website).

Strange Maps # 502

Got a strange map? Let me know at

Marijuana addiction has risen in places where it's legal

While legalization has benefits, a new study suggests it may have one big drawback.

BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study finds that rates of marijuana use and addiction have gone up in states that have recently legalized the drug.
  • The problem was most severe for those over age of 26, with cases of addiction rising by a third.
  • The findings complicate the debate around legalization.
Keep reading Show less

The strange case of the dead-but-not-dead Tibetan monks

For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.

Credit: MICHEL/Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • The bodies of some Tibetan monks remain "fresh" after what appears to be their death.
  • Their fellow monks say they're not dead yet but in a deep, final meditative state called "thukdam."
  • Science has not found any evidence of lingering EEG activity after death in thukdam monks.
  • Keep reading Show less

    What do Olympic gymnasts and star-forming clouds have in common?

    When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.

    Credit: sportpoint via Adobe Stock
    • Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
    • Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
    • Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
    Keep reading Show less
    Culture & Religion

    Of spies and wars: the secret history of tea

    How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.