step-by-step | creating a figure-ground diagram

A figure-ground diagram is a two-dimensional map of an urban space that shows the relationship between built and unbuilt space. It is used in the analysis of urban design and planning.

It is akin to but not the same as a Nolli map which denotes public space both within and outside buildings and also akin to a block pattern diagram that records public and private property as simple rectangular blocks. The earliest advocates of its use were Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter.

Rome | Nolli Plan


For the creation of a figure-ground diagram, it requires the study of accurate maps of the area. This can be done digitally or as a hand-drawn exercise. The figure ground can also be further developed as a three-dimensional model impression.

1   Lay a piece of tracing paper over a map and trace the outline of street edges and buildings.

2   Start filling out the buildings you’ve just traced with black pen. When that is done, your figure-ground is complete. Be clear about the aspects of the city you want to identify as ‘space’.

A few examples. . .

These two plates show what is called figure-ground reversals. By inverting the code you highlight different aspects of the spatial organisation.
These four images of Place Vendome in Paris show different levels of figure ground relationships. The black and shaded bits are meant to act as backgrounds to important ‘figural’ (symmetrical and hierarchical spaces) spaces left in the background white. You can see that what acts as background at one scale has figures within it that can be read at another scale.
The Augmented Landscape by Smout Allen

Figure-ground theory and analysis are now seen as reductive – it reduces the spatial phenomenon to a binary code – black/white; public/private; open/closed – and leaves out more complex readings. It has also come under fire for contributing to a formal method of designing — the orchestration of forms rarely taking into account program, use, users, etc. However, it is still a valuable way of looking at space so long as you understand its limitations and do not confuse analysis with designing. It’s great at letting you see things but doesn’t necessarily provide answers.