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…
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.
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.