The Plane Table: A tool of speculation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The Plane Table is a device used in the field for surveying and cartography. In its most rudimentary form, it is a drawing surface attached to a firm base in such a manner that it can articulate in all directions so as to be levelled to form a true, horizontal plane. The base is invariably a tripod whose legs can be adjusted so as to be able to negotiate rough, uneven ground. Upon this surface is set an alidade, a metal rule with a sight at either end. This rule can be turned to line up with a position of interest allowing a line to then be drawn along its edge to form an axis between viewer and the object or feature under scrutiny. The alidade can be used with other, more conventional, drawing devices such as rulers, compasses and setsquares to develop a graphic depiction of the terrain being surveyed – a form of cartographic manuscript.

The Plane Table lacks the precision of the theodolite which undertakes the survey in the numerical form of measurements. It is this empirical abstraction that sets the two surveying processes apart. A survey developed through a Plane Table forms the first draft of a map in the field. It evolves through a direct engagement with a process of drawing. Whilst more accurate, a survey undertaken with the use of a theodolite delays graphic engagement until the recordings have been returned to the drawing office. A map developed upon the surface of a Plane Table emerges live during the moment of observation. It bypasses many of the requirements of empirical measurement and, instead, relies more directly, more bodily, on looking as a performative act where something is produced, created, through the speculative act of observation itself.

The Plane Table enables a mapping to take place in the context of the territory under scrutiny. The immediacy of this process requires intuition engaged with crafted, structured procedure. Survey points are not necessarily predetermined but can be identified during the act of mapping. Relationships, connections, discoveries are literally drawn out through the direct act of crafting the manuscript map. The field of operation may no longer be considered as merely a fixed, physical terrain but instead, it emerges as a field of influences – observed moments.

The process is open to distraction. Cartographers engaging the Plane Table operate outwith the secure environment of the drafting room. They have to be agile, able to respond to the unexpected, moments of change and emphasis. They draw and create whilst being exposed to the full sensorial experience of the environment – its sounds, quality of light, weather, wind direction and surrounding social activity. The ground they depict is not empty, it is occupied – time passes here. Life takes place upon and within this land and its actions and biographies are caught up in the net of the surveyed lines.

This paper will consider the idea of a Plane Table as a tool of speculation. For every geological, meteorological or oceanographic phenomena there are multiple myths, retold through the various tongues of those that have settled upon or passed across its surface. For every empirical reality there is a marvelous retelling. To truly register a landscape, a Plane Table would itself become strange, able to be open to an extraordinary field of influences. In so doing, its design, scale, form and materiality would itself register the strangeness of the multivalent ground. The choreography of its operational movements would have to be complex and exceedingly agile, able to negotiate the various natural and cultural forces that act around it.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5
Pages (from-to)36-43
Number of pages7
JournalLA+ : Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 24 Oct 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • architecture
  • landscape
  • speculation
  • survey
  • representation
  • drawing


Dive into the research topics of 'The Plane Table: A tool of speculation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this