Thomas Holme’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia was based on William Penn’s interest that the city be organized on a grid between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Four squares around a central square were intended as open public parks. The central square was to be surrounded by governmental and public buildings. The plan was intended to evenly and comfortably spread development evenly between the rivers with gardens between.
Figure Ground, Philadelphia
As so often happens in with town plans, Penn’s interest was not well respected by the citizens. The developing city of Philadelphia grew chiefly along the Delaware riverfront for almost two hundred years because of the trade and commerce advantage it offered. Eventually, growth reached the opposite Schuylkill river and in 1871, the central Penn Square was filled with the historic Philadelphia City Hall. It was the tallest building in the world at the time and was topped with a 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn.
Care to venture a guess why a North Carolina architect would present a quick study of Philadelphia? Answer: Figure Ground Raleigh.
In the Introduction to Figure Ground, we saw how this tool can understand the relationship of buildings to streets. But it can also be helpful to understand the structure of entire towns and cities. At a larger scale we can quickly understand the form of a city by contrasting the streets from everything else.
In the famous map of New York City’s Manhattan Island, we can clearly see its growth pattern. The irregular 1624 settlement of New Amsterdam is at the south end of the island. It was served by a highway in Dutch called Breede weg, literally translated in English to what is now called Broadway. You can easily pick it out, because 200 years later, Broadway remains the lone exception to the regular cartesion grid applied over the remainder of the island by the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan.
Olmsted and Vaux’s 1857 plan for Central Park carved out 843 acres in the center of Manhattan as a natural relief of urbanity for the citizens, seen in the graphical relief of the long dark rectangle in the figure ground.
Figure Ground, Manhattan
My little five minute sketch is hardly able to do justice to Manhattan, one of the most popular figure ground urban studies. Many detailed hardline ones are widely available online if you Google image search “figure ground manhattan”.
I learned a tool way back in school that still guides much of my design process. I’ll present this in a series of short snippets with the goal of applying this to the site and design of a new house. But first, cities…
Figure Ground, Urban
If we shade the buildings on a city map, we can analyse the physical context with a figure ground study. The streets look like rivers of space through the buildings.
Streets act as the rooms of a city in which the public activities of the citizens live. Small alleys and yards beside or behind individual buildings allow more private spaces beyond the public.
Reversing the colors can accentuate a different context. In this case, the intersections at each street crossing seem to be more obvious.
Figure Ground, Reversed
Notice the one lone building adjacent the top intersection does not “hold the edge” but retracts a bit from the intersection? It seems to have it’s own small yard in front rather than behind. This simple physical move from the public street retracts the building from the public realm in our minds, too. From the street, the ambiguity between public and private space here causes us to pause. The building seems more aloof than the others. Is the public allowed to walk through this yard? Or is it only for the building’s occupants or visitors?
A great deal has been written on this shift in urban design beginning in the 1950’s. Many towns and cities have now reversed this trend through maximum and minimum setback requirements in their town planning guidelines, including Apex, Cary, and Raleigh.
The point of a figure ground study is to highlight the nature of building edges and the relationships between buildings and the spaces around them. Next, I’ll show some examples at a different scale, starting with Manhattan.