Who’s in front?

In the drawing class my first year of architecture school, our professor gave us an assignment to represent ambiguous depth cues, one of which is occlusion (or overlap)–the location of an object in front of another, which tells you it’s closer.

I remain fascinated with the idea that through manipulation of this particular depth cue, foreground and background can be made to switch places.

The quilter Michael James has crafted some amazing quilts, using parallel strips of hand-dyed cloth. At 90″x90″, it’s engulfing in scale, and perfectly gorgeous.

“Suspended Animation,” Michael James, 1992

I see brightly colored forms floating in front of dark, receding empty space. But then a moment later, the dark substantial forms are in front of a bright receding background. I love the way the figure and ground pop back and forth as my eye follows the edges of the forms. Though it is a fixed image, it is very active. It is like a puzzle and a riddle.

Here’s another with similarly reversing negative/positive space:

“Quilt No. 150: Rehoboth Meander,” Michael James, 1993, The Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

There is a long tradition of quilters’ exploration of figure and ground reversal.

In another medium altogether, this is an oil painting of mine in which I play with occlusion. It keeps my eyes and mind engaged.

Untitled, oil on canvas, Laura Kraft, 1978

First image courtesy of International Quilt Study Center and Museum, second image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

All other images belong to Laura Kraft-Architect. Feel free to share any of these images, but please provide a link back to 2H Pencil.  Thanks.

Accentuate the Negative

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.

Feel free to share any of these images, but please provide a link back to 2H Pencil.  Thanks.