Figure-Ground Drawings

Drawing by Tomi Perl

Figure ground drawing is an important drawing typology as well as my favorite one, which I often use in my architecture and urban design processes. Figure ground drawing is an analytical drawing  that helps me to evaluate appropriateness when inserting a new design into an existing urban fabric.  In other words, figure ground drawings help clarify the order of existing urban morphology. It helps to justify the shape of new buildings in a certain level. Indeed it is a reduction drawing typology that is intended to eliminate and is fully focused on the relationship between open ground and buildings’ shapes.

When Colin Rowe submitted his proposal for a cultural competition “Roma interrotta” in 1978, he employed figure ground drawing as part of his drawing method for his proposal. Each of twelve renowned architects who participated in the competition were given a 1748 Nolli map as an important order of the existing urban fabric.  Rowe retained important elements of the city such as streets and plazas as existing conditions from the Nolli map.  Additional parts of his design proposal were created with various shapes that were filled in with black color to represent the shape of new buildings that ought to be new urban infill, which Rowe termed “ideal ground plans.”  It is a superimposed method of urban design. The result of his reinvention of using figure ground drawing as part of design strategy was remarkable. His proposal offered the opportunity of the city to capture the urban spatial quality and order of the existing urban fabric, but set free the new building design to be built in any era as long as they are aligned within existing urban order. For further understanding, please read “Urban Design Tactics” by Steven Peterson.

Typically in figure ground drawings, all buildings will be done in black Poche while leaving open land, streets, and plazas as white. I see figure ground as an another type of diagram drawing since it uses the reduction method of drawing.  I normally construct the drawing by using AutoCad, and I found that Cadmapper is a very useful website for this particular task.  The outline of each building will be drawn with thin lines (0.09 mm) and the buildings’ shape will be hatched with solid hatch. 1:2000 (Close to 1/160″=1′ in feet and inches) is an ideal scale for drawing figure ground in metric and it is likely the smallest scale that is being used in architectural drawing. The important elements that should be included with figure ground drawings are the north arrow and graphic scale.

The drawing above is an example of a figure ground drawing of Rome, Italy that was created by one of my students, Tomi Perl, in an urban design course as part of urban morphology studies. The drawing highlights the Pantheon in red the building of focus. With this approach, viewers will be able to spot the focused area of study easily.