Olaus Magnus, Carta marina et Descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum, diligentissime elaborata Annon Domini 1539 Veneciis liberalitate Reverendissimi Domini Ieronimi Quirini,1539, James Ford Bell Library,University of Minnesota.
The unknown is a spatial construct. The cartographic term terra incognita, “unknown territory” or “unknown land,” describes spaces which lie beyond the extents of the known world. These spaces are both physical and imagined; though they are represented in cartography and literature, they are ultimately speculative fabrications at the edges of the known world. In this thesis, I explore terra incognita as a philosophical construct intimately bound to the production of space.
Unexplored, uninhabited, and undocumented, the unknown persists at the periphery of the map. In medieval and Renaissance cartography, mapmakers often grafted symbols and mythical creatures into the peripheral spaces of the map, in those regions just beyond the reaches of sovereign control. This practice created a paradox between the objective geographic survey and the interpretation of space through symbolic imagery; a paradox which was most articulated within terra incognita, the dynamic, uninhabited lands dwelling on the tenuous horizon of the known universe. Here, the symbol served as a projection of man’s desire to occupy the unknown, operating as a mediator between the impossibility of the infinite and the tactility of the immediate.
Yet the unknown is not simply geographical space awaiting exploration. The unknown exists at the scale of the microcosm and the macrocosm; it pervades our being and inflects our perception of the world. All human enterprise, whether in art, science, religion, philosophy, or architecture, thrives because of the desire to know, understand, and give shape to this potentially infinite expanse. As a consequence, human history can be understood as a trajectory marked by a ceaseless expansion of civilization into terra incognita. To encounter the unknown requires specific strategies, tactics, and armatures: spatial practices of discovery, speculation, projection, and creation. These discrete spatial operations ultimately operate as structural mediations at the liminal edge the known world, creating what I consider the architecture of the unknown.