I recently had a chance to teach a few classes about architecture and design to some bright 5th graders. They were excited by the following demonstration. First, we looked at these yellow columns:
Then we looked again, with a hint: LOOK AT THE SHAPES OF THE SPACES BETWEEN THE COLUMNS. This brought on gasps of recognition and laughter. The negative space popped into the foreground and became the forms of people.
The moment when perception changes is jarring and provocative. The two different sets of information, once discerned, compete for foreground status.
Positive and negative space can provide an interesting lens with which to look at plans of buildings and towns. The gray shapes are the buildings in Martina Franca, an Italian town founded around 1300. Those with crosses drawn on them are churches. Interesting that there is barely a rectangular shape to be found.
To get a different perspective, reverse the positive and negative, and focus on the branching circulation paths. The wider parts are the gathering places. This image (below) showing the twisting streets, the dead ends, and the irregularly shaped plazas, gives an insight into what it was like to get around this town.
When designing a building or group of them, it is useful and informative to “pop” the shape of the circulation space into the foreground and look at it as a thing in its own right. It’s not just leftover square footage—it’s the connective tissue of the experience of the place.
First image courtesy of coolopticalillusions.com. Town plans adapted from “Streets for People,” by Bernard Rudofsky.
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The “a-ha” moment of teaching is the best.