Cartographic Giant of the 20th century pioneered and perfected the physical relief map
A Section of Erwin Raisz’s Landform Map of the United States (courtesy Raisz Landform Maps)
Erwin Raisz (1893-1968) has, at this writing, left precious little in the way of biographical information, but his achievements in the field of rendering and education shaped the mapmaking field of the early-mid 20th Century to an unmistakeable degree, if for no other reason than providing the public with the example of the sheer beauty and perfection that landform mapping can achieve.
Born in Hungary, he was the son of a civil engineer, being introduced to maps at a young age. From there it became a life devoted to studying the maps, geography and cartography with time spent in the army and in engineering. In 1923 he emigrated to the United States with a degree in civil engineering and architecture from Royal Polytechnicum in Budapest and attended Columbia University graduate school. Eventually he found a place at Harvard University where he taught cartography and was curator of the Map Collection for almost 20 years from 1931.
During that time he perfected the ongoing gifts that are some of cartography’s greatest treasures. Amongt them are the first cartography textbook in the English language, General Cartography, first published in 1938, a copy of which exists (a 1948 2nd edition) in my own collection. The book itself is beautiful, with detailed information on how to hand render maps, how to construct projections, deep mapmapking history and the state of the surveying and mapping art of the day, accompanied throughout with illustrations that were plainly produced by a master of the art, each a work of art in its own right.
Regarded as a great talent by his peers, his works and papers were read widely national and international professional organizations. He pioneered and perfected certain statistical styles and created at least one standard projection. But his other great achievement was the landform map, two samples of which can be seen above and just to the left.
A closeup sample of the astounding Raisz landform drafting style (courtesy Raisz Landform Maps)
Raisz’s landform maps straddle the line between information design and pure art, and it isn’t hard to see why. Landforms graduate from mere symbols to three-dimensional forms which are so solid one almost wants to reach out and touch the mountains, valleys, rivers, hills and plains. Equipped with an excellent memory and relentless output, he redefined what the printed map can represent. His famous landform maps of countries and contintents made nearby lands familiar and distant lands real places one could actually picture themselves walking about in, rather than mere concepts.
They resonated with map lovers near and far. Pierce Lewis, Professor of Geography, The Pennsylvania State University, was once quoted as saying:
I have long been fond of telling students that Raisz’s landform map is the best map of the U.S. that I know of, irrespective of subject. No matter how one sets about to judge a map – as cartography, as art, or as a vivid and accurate rendition of the American land – the map is incomparable. I have traveled with it for more than thirty years; indeed, to travel by air in the U.S. without Raisz is (to me) unthinkable.
Perhaps the best news for cartophiles, casual or otherwise, is that Raisz Landform Maps are still available today. Ranging in prices from USD $4.00 to USD $30.00, offerings include the landform displays of the United States and the world’s continents, relief maps of the world, and of various countries.
Truly Raisz landform maps are timeless, holding up well against maps made today, only surpassed by the crystal clear satellite photography of today-but in them, there is no artistic human hand. One of the utmost expressions of the intersections of art and cartography, Raisz’s maps draw the viewer in, involving them esthetically as well as informationally, a feat few maps since have been able to claim.
(Many thanks to Raisz Landform Maps, without whose generous assistance biographical information about Erwin Raisz would have been impossible to come by, and for granting permission to use the above illustrations)