Figure Ground: The process of prioritization in representing urban form

Aylin Tarlan

Supervisors: Pier Vittorio Aureli, Maria Giudici

This thesis studies the position of Figure and Ground in urban representation, from the Roman urban survey plans to today’s digital cartography. It will start by investigating the origins of the terms Figure and Ground in different fields such as optics, perception, Gestalt psychology, art and early representations of cities. Then, it will unfold both genealogically and thematically in a series of case studies of different representations of urban form.The thesis problematizes the process of prioritization of information during the production of urban form, the object through which we can directly assess Figure Ground. This question becomes more and more relevant in digital cartography where the organization of data relies on software, thus leaving the process of foregrounding and backgrounding unsettled. The thesis will initially study this process through an investigation of the use of this terminology in urban representation and theory. The word “Forma” was first used to address an object during the Roman Centuria. “Forma”, a document inscribed in a bronze tablet, collected the evidence of subdivision and privatization of land during colonization. It was a process of recording land ownership done by surveyors, marking the beginning of representation of urban form. Also, the theme Figure Ground has been a major topic in more recent architectural discourses, since it was placed by Colin Rowe in Collage City. Though Figure Ground isn’t merely an exercise of form; a black-white or mass-void drawing, as he mentioned and developed, it is an instrument of clarity. It creates legibility in the sake of hierarchy bringing with it ideological, cultural, political consequences. To further investigate this phenomenon, the thesis will analyze a series of examples from Forma Urbis, Buffalini and Nolli to Cassini maps. The genealogical research intends to explore the increasing scientific methods and technology used in the production of urban form. These representations, maps as we know them serve to make land ownership a readable data. First, it will explore Forma Urbis which is the projection of the city’s footprint on to a two-dimensional plane marking the beginning of cartography, therefore the production of urban form. Although, there are many other ways of producing urban form; such as figures, monuments, memory, imagination and symbolism-a. All of these are displaced by the Forma being an abstraction trough measure, which is instrumental to cadastral knowledge of the city. Then it will look at maps done by Leonardo Bufalini and Gianbattista Nolli, who were both experts in cadastral survey and applied this specific technique into the maps of Rome which they produced. These maps are particularly relevant because they created a gradual displacement of architecture as an artifact by the abstraction of cartography. These maps defined land ownership in the eighteenth-century Rome and were the basis for urban reform. We can observe a similar approach in the Cassini maps produced with a geodetic triangulation grid and served to detect limits of the kingdom’s territory thus consolidate internal economic markets. So, to understand the process of making urban form, it is imperative to investigate closely the scientific methods developed in these specific case studies. The design component will follow this, aiming to explore digitally produced maps. As a documentation, it will provide an evidence on the current condition of mapping processes and as a project, it will speculate the process of prioritization of data using contemporary technologies.

Image: Surveyors at work, drawing by G. Moscara, from the book “Misurare la Terra: Centurazione e Coloni nel Mondo Romano”, 2003

Biography: Aylin Tarlan is an architect, researcher and educator. Born in New York City, she studied architecture at the University of Florence, École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville and has a Masters in Architecture from Pratt Institute New York. She worked as an Architect and Curatorial assistant with Peter Macapia in NYC and as an architect at Tabanlioglu Architects and Autoban212 in Istanbul. She had her own practice since 2012 working in Istanbul, NYC, Miami and Cannes. She has published a New York guide book for Tasarim magazine, written Istanbul biennial reviews for The Guide Istanbul. She has taught both theory and design studio courses at Bilgi University in Istanbul until 2017 and is currently pursuing a PhD by Design at The Architectural Association School of Architecture in London as part of The City as a Project.