Figure-Grounded

Why We Should Use Less Ink When Drawing Cities

April 9, 2014

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

In 1551, Leonardo Bufalini’s representation of Rome took a first step in representing the urban landscape for centuries to come, as constructed walls became thickened black lines. Giambattista Nolli furthered this in the mid-1700s, demonstrating the importance of public space as open and accessible. He also depicted the majority of buildings as solid objects, laying the foundation for the figure-ground diagram advocated by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter in the 1970s. Black is the built, white is open infrastructure. Frederick Gibberd proposed a reversal of this, focusing on open space as the object. Having spent much of my career studying — and emulating — these tactics, I have tremendous respect for each of these means of representation. However, I’m wondering if it is time to rethink how we draw the city.

Presently, across the globe, civilization is building 5 billion square feet of new construction annually — just under 1 million square feet every week. Yet I’m struck by the notion that if we continue to render — and design — buildings as static black objects in a figure-ground, we are not advancing beyond 18th-century representations. We need less black ink on the paper. We can obviously achieve this through greater open space and infrastructure, but what if we consider it from a different angle, leaning more heavily on the built environment?

A few years ago, some colleagues and I experimented with a concept we termed “greyscape.” We were developing a competition entry for the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, and noticed during several visits how severe the transition was from the “white to black” of the figure-ground drawing. The traditional portico or courtyard did not exist; the front porch was nowhere to be found. Doors opened directly onto sidewalks, leading to uncomfortable exchanges between the public and the personal. Landscape and building rarely met, and the hard edges of Soviet-era construction exacerbated such abruptness. Our proposal explored a melding of the city plan, pressing for an interstitial zone that was both programmed and loose, both black (object) and white (infrastructure) — and therefore inherently “grey.” We envisioned an area that was both space and surface, both inside and outside — and thus “scape.” Our outcome was a true organic campus that invited the city to participate with it, not around it.

Likewise, we felt, buildings should not be static, unmoving, unconnected, “black” islands divorced from the sidewalk and the street. They should instead accommodate and move with the living entities that inhabit them. The built environment should be a platform where inhabitants are not constrained by envelope, but rather free to expand and contract, to evolve and transition. Humans aren’t intended to be sedentary, to sit at a desk as buildings sit on a property. Humans are meant to move, to breathe, to interact. Science is revealing the truth to what we’ve always suspected: the more we move, the greater our creativity and curiosity, and of course the better our health and well-being. Design should encourage this.

I still believe in “greyscape” as a transitional need within our cities. However, I have a new perspective on how to reflect that in our drawings. The next time we roll out a city plan, studying it for pattern and movement, our first lines should be just that: thin black lines — the thickness of an exterior wall — framing the interiors of buildings as “white” kinetic spaces similar to the adjacent sidewalk and street. For all our efforts over the centuries to enclose space, what separates us from the freedom white space offers is still just 12” of exterior wall. Can the pen liberate our minds to see this opportunity?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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