The Woof and the Warp of Architecture: The Figure-Ground in Urban Design

B.D. Wortham-Galvin


To borrow a metaphor used by Georg W.F. Hegel in the Philosophy of History to describe historical processes, architecture should be understood as a series of complex threads wherein one recognizes the physical forms as the warp, and the temporal, socio-political, natural, and aural contexts as the woof. Fabric is asserted as a concept broader than the immediate spatial and physical situation in which individual buildings are located; and, the threads of the fabric are all of those elements that aid in making the built environment both a designed and lived experience.

In order to discuss this proposed understanding of fabric, this paper will look at how drawings informed the process and theory of urban design in the mid- to late-twentieth century. The discussion will focus on the origins of the Nolli plan and its 'rediscovery' by the Cornell School and their use of the figure-ground as a primary tool in the formulation of an urban design theory. The trajectory of the figure-ground can reinvigorate contemporary urban design praxis once more by reasserting drawing as more than mere illustration but as a means to conceptualize design methodologies that support a holistic notion of fabric.

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