"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness...." Charles Dickens
The relations between buildings, streets, and public space, often referred to as a fabric, is represented by a variety of maps and, increasingly, data organized into various frameworks. For us the term urban fabric holds notions of insideness, of woven space, of the interplay of multiple uses — these are the elements we value in an extended place. Such qualities are not always associated with an urban fabric and in fact, this is becoming less and less so in contemporary fabrics created anew.
A figure-ground plan, which renders the elements into a binary relationship of built and unbuilt, is one of the most common means to represent a fabric. The well known Nolli plan of Rome is a slightly more complex version of this representation showing the public spaces vs. the private spaces. The bifurcation offered by a figure-ground plan is well enough for what it is — inside-outside, public-private, street- not street — providing a particular view of a fabric. Just like the proverbial representational tail wagging the design dog, using such binary representations can mean missing much of the transitions, overlaps, collective territories, and continuities that weave our cities' fabrics.
Our interest is in developing representations that avoid simple binary renderings, ones that allow for the relational information between scales to be seen. While there is a multitude of opportunities for this with the emergence of computational and GIS technologies at the urban and building design level, the problem is integrating this information into design methods. The biases in figure-ground plans are echoed in the boundaries present in design practices and schools. We have a colleague in landscape architecture that describes her area of study as everything in between buildings and another in planning is modeling cities accepting the bifurcations imbedded in ESRI’s data structure. We have more data, but less sense, as in how a street supports activities beyond traffic or how the realm of the private supports public street activities. Architecture, reinforcing its own borders, often neglects the continuity of a city’s experience in favor of singular expression. Looking around, you can see examples of such figured designs; the occasional is special, but a host of them does not make a fabric.
Further here: Renee Chow (1999) "Informing Dwelling," Places, 12:3, 14-17.