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Hypermedia Berlin represents an extraordinary achievement in accessible urban representation. Great cities like Berlin are densely layered and almost inconceivably complex palimpsests. Attempts to represent that historically-layered complexity have, for generations (since the rise of urban research), foundered on the rock of the printed page. Densely detailed maps at “large” scale (meaning close-up) are necessarily huge and can only represent a small slice of time. Pre-digital solutions relied on mylar overlays, but the geographers who made such contraptions were never interested in the cultural-historical dimension of cities. Rather, they focused on infrastructure and demographics. Since the rise of Geographic Information Sciences (GIS), web-based map servers with robust interactive and database-powered features have made almost anything possible, but the problem has been to tame them, so that an untrained user can explore a city without the numbing and eye-glazing effects of complex functionality. MapQuest-type systems are still pedaling the thinnest surface facts of street addresses. Hypermedia Berlin is just the thing we need.
Berlin is among the most challenging of modern cities to study. It was devastated in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), occupied and rebuilt almost constantly during the 18th century, and then promoted to the status of national capitol under Bismarck. It was not only devastated by WWII, but then mutilated by the Berlin Wall, and then rebuilt once again since 1989. If we could just develop the tools to make all these changes visible, then the very processes of history might become knowable. Hypermedia Berlin has taken us one step closer.
The authors of Hypermedia Berlin have taken an elegant and simple off-the-shelf program, “Zoomify,” and built it into an intuitive Flash program that effectively articulates between the spatial logic of cartography and the conceptual logic of historical layers, “places,” and “people.” I love the animated connecting lines between a place label and the map icon, as the map moves into position and focus. Simplicity and elegance (helped by the very impressive use of attractive archival maps) have finally banished the ugly utilitarian functionality of GIS and made the city stand out.
The project is clearly designed as courseware but could and should be adapted to more interpretive and argumentative research purposes. The “places” and “people” texts are in the genre of encyclopedia entries. Hypermedia Berlin seeks to encourage the interrogation of the historical cityscape, but the factual finality of the encyclopedia genre may stifle that quest, especially in the novice student of urban history. Much could also be gained from the well-established modes of social history. The “people” are Great Men, which leaves a huge gap to fill between these elites and the demographics in the “urban development maps.” Who were the millions who lived in those neighborhoods? Ironically, Hypermedia Berlin has created a postmodern virtual environment, but has mostly preserved objective-modernist modes of representation within it. I should think that the architecture developed here could be greatly augmented by recasting the content in a more daring way.
- Philip Ethington, University of Southern California, 09.14.2005