Monday, January 3, 2011

Figure ground & Nolli

Figure ground diagram of Washington, DC

One of the basic tools urban designers use is a figure ground map. A figure ground diagram represents the relationship between built and unbuilt space wherein white represents unbuilt space while black represents the built space.

A figure-ground diagram clearly illustrates the relationship between mass and void, and it is a powerful tool that can be used to study the urban fabric of a city. A high ratio of building mass to open space allows for clearly articulated urban space and well defined connective elements to link those spaces. A low ratio of building mass to open space can lead to buildings disconnected from the urban fabric and can be indicative of surface elements such as parking lots.

A historical extension of this idea was utilized by Giambattista Nolli in his famous map of Rome in 1748. His map utilizes the same mass to void relationship utilized in the figure ground diagram; however, Nolli added an additional layer of information which included public spaces. Thus, when one views the Nolli map, not only is the void of street elements apparent against the mass of buildings, but the voids of public spaces such as churches are visible as well.

A nice little exercise involving figure ground diagrams is found here. The objective being to name American cities by their figure-ground diagram.

1 comment:

  1. Ian,

    I too am an Intern Architect who is working in DC and I have come across your blog because I have been searching endlessly for a figure ground of DC. Did you make that yourself? And if so, where did you get the files? I am doing a figure ground project and would love to find a way to obtain the files. Please let me know when you get a chance. Thank you so much. You can reach me at