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Creating Silhouettes of the City From Memory

Creating Silhouettes of the City From Memory

There are any number of ways to capture your memories of a new city. You can take pictures, or keep a Dickensian travel diary, or go back home and start yelling at strangers on the street. Few put in the effort to understand what they've seen quite like Chauntelle Trinh and Eckard Buscher.

Since 2007, the Berlin-based wife-and-husband team have been making what they call "Metroscapes" — incredibly intricate city centers reproduced on sturdy paper with lasers. Each Metroscape presents a sort of stencil of a city: holes are cut away where the buildings would be, leaving only the skeletal streets. The effect is unique and, when presented against a dark background, even a little ghostly.

That product doesn't come easy. Trinh and Buscher say each cityscape requires, first, an intense phase of urban exploration. (They're aided by Buscher's precise spatial memory; he can apparently look at a street in a given city and tell you exactly where it is.) Months of drawing and development can follow until the Metroscape meets their standards.

Trinh, who's from Vietnam, and Buscher, from Germany, both studied architecture in school and have worked in the field for many years. They produced their first Metroscape in Sydney and now have 16 available for purchase. "The Metroscapes are a great conversation starter, and we have had the privilege of sharing many stories with other people," they told Atlantic Cities, in a joint interview conducted over email. "And that's what it's all about."

What inspired your shift from being general urban explorers to making art about cities?

We have spent a lot of time tracking down Architecture we admired. On these journeys, the thought of going on a bus tour never occurred to us, so we ended up finding our own way, wandering a lot of backstreets. Back at home we would often reminisce about simple moments, not just big events, and sharing experiences with friends made us realize stories just weren't enough. We needed to make something we could look at, to hold in our hands.

When you're exploring a city for a Metroscape, what's your approach?

At first, we explored every street. By foot, bike, car. It was a crazy challenge but we wanted to capture it all. It was worth it too, because covering so much ground thoroughly is an experience in itself. We would start with a map and go from there, marking all the buildings down. Every city required a different approach.

These days we are much more efficient and selective, we tend to spend more time exploring the areas away from the downtown precinct where local life is more dynamic.

Walk us through the process of making a Metroscape.

After the city is "documented" there is substantial editing involved, where we shift the invisible framework until we get a composition we can both agree on. Then, using a computer-aided drawing program, we draw the buildings according to a visual language we developed. … We are continuously printing and redrawing until the Metroscape looks they way we want it to. The lasering process involves several prototypes until the final Metroscape can no longer be improved and is therefore finished. Sometimes the whole process can be back-breaking, overly intense. It is a burden of perfectionism but it is worth it.

What's the most challenging city you've done so far?

Tokyo! Hands down. We absolutely love Tokyo, and had to do it! We started with some outdated maps — so much had changed! There were an insane amount of buildings — narrow and in all different orientations to one another. Eckard rode for two solid weeks through every street in a three-by-three kilometer section, fanning outwards from the Shibuya crossing and marked out each one. The same policemen stopped him at least half a dozen times, it seemed odd to be cruising the streets that many times a day! Afterwards, I took it upon myself to draw from his notes. It took me almost 4 months.

How do you choose which neighborhood to portray for each work? In New York, it looks like you chose Times Square.

It's a purely subjective choice. We choose the area we find most interesting, with architecture or neighborhoods that we like, the area we want to remember. Originally we worked with a three-by-three kilometer area. most cities fit comfortably inside this very walkable framework.

Midtown Manhattan is an interesting part of the city because of all the skyscrapers, the hectic streets juxtaposed with the calm of Central Park. We love that it is a highly commercial precinct, touristy, but also a place where people live. You can go to Times Square and surround yourself with noise and people, then sit on a bench in Central Park or Union Square and life is back to normal again.

What do you hope people get out of your Metroscapes?

Beauty and enjoyment. Sometimes it's easy to forget how beautiful our cities are. From time to time we encounter a few nostalgic folks who look at the Metroscapes and see their own memories. Then there are those who look at the Metroscape of a city they have never been to and try to imagine what it must be like by comparing the patterns and proportions with their own city. There are no videos or photographs to guide them, just their imagination.

Images courtesy of Chauntelle Trinh and Eckard Buscher.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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