Detroit: Beyond the Figure-Ground

September 10, 2012

Essay by David Karle.


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Proposed intervention: conceptual diagram. © David Karle.

The subject of the project is the physicality of architecture and the ephemerality of the contemporary city; the evaporation of distance and matter through electronic technology.
—Peter Wilson, Western Objects Eastern Fields (Architectural Association Publications: 1990).

The projective roles of the architectural drawing in the discipline are simultaneously exhilarating and daunting.
—Perry Kulper “Representing beyond the Surface,” (Arc CA Drawn Out. AIACC Design Awards Issue. 05.3)

The current state of drawing in contemporary practice and design research is one of over simplification, driven by the need to reduce and optimize information. In recent years exploration in architectural drawings have taken a back seat to conventional reductive drawing methods. As a result visual complexity, abstraction, and projection within drawings are under crushing pressure to be augmented, simplified, and reduced to align with the procedural optimization methods of digital fabrication and output devices. But when does optimization become standardization? The role of the computer and streamlined manufacturing techniques has minimized the impact of abstract explorative architectural drawings to discover new spatial relationships and experiences.

Architects Perry Kulper and Peter Cook use drawings as an outlet for experimenting and exploring the unknown projective qualities of a city and landscape. Perry Kulper states, “to overcome the legacy of reductive representation practices, we should conceptualize the construction of drawing as more than a tool for problem solving, organization or expression.”1 Drawings should be used as a tool to explore and project future scenarios. Peter Cook states, “the drawings can possible be better than the reality.”2 It is time to recalibrate the role of the drawing within architecture. Not as an exotic, over formal juxtaposition of super-realistic renderings but as a tool to aid in the development strategies for a building, city block, and forms of American urbanism.

Refocusing the lens

It is difficult to perceive and represent conditions outside of the preferred pathways of our current frame of mind. In order to tap into the vast subtle potential of our complex cultural condition, one has to operate outside of the limitations of ones daily language. Predetermined thought and habits potentially bind us into an easy or negative form of exploration. By shedding these limitations, drawings become dramatic for the discipline of architecture and hold the speculative potential to facilitate space finding and track the cultural pulse. Drawings should be open-ended and record relationships outside of themselves, both visible and invisible. As scientific endeavor shows us, to make a change in an object is insignificant in comparison to a change made to the lenses the object is viewed through. Refocusing the visual lens is necessary for the discipline of architecture. The process should be less reductive and project future possibilities.3 No longer reductively seeking clarity of the center but with the ability to operate outside of our nostalgic tendencies and relationally learn how to practice multiplicity, simultaneity, and hybridity. The methods and processes venture into the study of complexity, loosens predetermined thoughts and habits.

Representing layers of complexity and open-endedness support the production of thoughts. The layers and logics of complexity suggest a different way to approach each condition or space to communicate on multiple levels. A method to achieve this registration is to start in the middle. Starting from the middle, area of known, and working out, areas of unknown, affords a unique vantage point. Working from the middle out suggests the creative process is not reactionary but rather emergent. From the middle, we are no longer looking at objects, events, or space as known elements. This shift enables another way of thinking and operating. Reading a space, city, or condition from the middle, collapses the distance between objects enabling a new form of density not found in most representations.

“…The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed. BETWEEN things (at the leaks) does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one AND the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.”4

Drawing and representing the thought process allows for spatial and contextual investigations to emerge through a non-predictive attitude towards understanding space, helping to inform real-time programmatic, and contextual relations. Drawings conceived under this umbrella, become a device for capturing and recording logics, and a medium for establishing new ones. They push back on seductive conventional drawings masking complexity. In essence, the goal is to achieve drawing as an action allowing for a tabula rasa of thought, recording a condition and its process simultaneously. Accounting for all the variables and parameters of a given space at one time, can generate a multiplicity of readings. Documenting the process, Perry Kulper describes this act as “ecologies of potential.” Where the “act of drawing itself becomes a form of discovery of logics and structure of the work.”5 Positioning the role of drawing as a projective tool in relation to a building, city block, and contemporary American urbanism will enable us to refocus the lens on viewing a city like Detroit.

Case Study: Projecting Detroit

Detroit’s overlapping street grids primarily organized the historic built environment within the city. The Woodward Plan, laid out in 1807 references a hub-and-spoke design, organized the major arterial roads radiating from the city’s center. However, the Woodward Plan was only partially realized and a traditional rectilinear grid pattern was overlaid on top of the existing streets; resulting in an interruption along the cities main arteries allowing for a series of wedge shaped blocks and irregular buildings to emerge.

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Detroit’s Woodward Plan diagrams. Co-presences of overlapping grids. © David Karle.

Over the past six decades Detroit’s population has plummeted to a century low and the city fabric and figure-ground street grids have eroded, leaving a series of isolated buildings. “The ground and the figure are in the process of inversion.”6 These isolated buildings previously served as a homogeneous part of the urban fabric now stand devoid of any relationship to adjacent buildings and only reference the historical street grid that once cut through the city. These isolated buildings provide a glimpse into the history of Detroit but in order to understand the role of the current city one must look beyond the street grid, and investigate the roll of the datascape on the city.

Similar to the historic overlapping street grids, a third non-Euclidian streaming datascape provides an alternative reading of the city. Examining the potentials within overlapping systems (physical street grids and emergent datascape) triggers a ‘digital unfolding’ of buildings and space within the city. This augmented reading creates a modern day re-imagination of the built environment, focused specifically on the isolated buildings. The Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Research at the KTH School of Architecture-Stockholm claims, “the ambient presence of the datascape alters the users’ normative sequencing of spaces within the city and introduces a series of multiple temporalities and spatialities.”7 The illustrations throughout this paper utilize the drawing technique of projection to explore the latent temporalities and spatialities of the datascape in post-industrial Detroit by projecting the city fabric and a series of isolated buildings.


The technique of projection within representation is used to uncover new ways of viewing and understanding an object or space from different directions. “Projection is not a thing itself, but a relationship between things. As such, its internal relations are not fixed, and can always be reconfigured.”8 The ambient construction lines of a drawing produce a temporal spatial projection of space and hold the information required to construct space from an alternative vantage point. Using the technique of projection enables an object or a space to emerge out of set of rules, logics, and constructions lines. The technique allows for a non-prescriptive method of thinking and discovery to emerge through a series of illustrations.

The projection of space, in the representation of the city, occurs at two scales, city context or block, and the individual buildings. The ability to understand the larger city context based on the physicality of a specific building or city block, allows the user to understand the city in terms of the street grid and density. In order to understand Detroit and the relationship between density and perception, one must look beyond traditional representational methods of figure-ground and utilize the method of projection.9 As Jason Young points out in his essay “Density of Emptiness,” there is a false sense of density in downtown Detroit due to the compactness of the radiating Woodward plan. The isolated buildings throughout the city are visually collapsed across city blocks, providing a denser vision of the city.

The second example of projecting space in representation of the city is through the understanding of the ambient datascape streaming around a building. Detroit receives millions of Google results, 425,000,000 web links and 1,330,000,000 images links. These results range from streaming videos to historical maps providing a glimpse into the current and historical city. All of this information is streaming through the air (datascape) and can instantaneously be accessed. Belinda Barnet, a lecturer in Media at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne states, “every street and building has a layer of virtual graffiti I can summon in an instant; my experiences will in turn be archived and will form part of this collective inscription. Although I cannot see these records on the walls and artifacts around me, they are not immaterial; they ‘cannot be accessed except via the mediating processes of the devices that represent this information’ to an otherwise unequipped consciousness.”10 The datascape is not systematized or rigid like the physical grid, it is directionless. Paul Virilio states, traditional geographic coordinates are literally valueless in relation to the streaming digital culture. The datascape is a system of free flowing activity streaming through the city. Manuel De Landa states, “most space to today is Euclidian space,”11 but the streaming digital space is based on a non-Euclidian coordinates system. With the introduction of streaming datascape, the user is conceptually and perceptually projected through the city. Moments of intensity between the physical overlap of the street grid and the streaming datascape allows for the digital unfolding of buildings or spaces. Digitally unfolded space or buildings is the ability to access streaming digital information to comprehend a space, city or building. As the building digitally unfolds via a smartphone the “user” is conceptually and perceptually projected around the building.

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Projecting Detroit’s figure-ground. © David Karle.

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Unfolding Detroit. © David Karle.

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Unfolding the Milner Hotel. © David Karle.

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Unfolding the Milner Hotel. © David Karle.

An example of this projected space is explored in the representational techniques used in the drawings of the Detroit’s Milner Hotel, which attempts to capture and visualize the ambient relational qualities between object and user. The Milner hotel is an isolated building in the city center primarily influenced by the original Woodward Plan. The Hotel is an example of how the intensities of overlapping physical grids and datascape are articulated in an object or architecture.

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The Milner hotel is an isolated building in downtown Detroit primarily influenced by the original Woodward Plan. © David Karle.

Similar to the ambient nature of the streaming datascape within the city, the construction lines of a drawing have equal amount ambient information embedded within each point and line. Both ambient systems contain information necessary to connect and construct different views and experiences within the city and within a drawing. These parameters include physical and atmospheric adjacencies influencing the space and object.

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Proposed intervention: section / perspective. © David Karle.

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Proposed intervention: sectional model 1. © David Karle.

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Proposed intervention: sectional model 2. © David Karle.

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Proposed intervention: perspective. © David Karle.


Architectural drawings help facilitate conversations of experience, discovery, exploration, and potential. The role of drawings within architectural discourse and practice has changed but the tangibility of the artifact can never be replaced. Recognizing the need to move beyond historically restrictive drawing techniques such as a figure-ground drawing towards a more dynamic open-ended method of representing a city or space is necessary. Non-reductive forms of communication will position multiple outcomes. By refocusing the lens in which we view the role of architectural drawings within the discourse, new ways of viewing an object or converging forces on a city like Detroit, will emerge.

The illustrations throughout this essay tap into the latent potentials embedded within the overlapping systems in downtown Detroit and provide a new lens to represent a changing city. The drawings utilizing projection to collapse distances, augment spatial relationships, skew, and distort the reading of the city.

1 Perry Kulper “Representing beyond the Surface,” (Arc CA Drawn Out. AIACC Design Awards Issue. 05.3).
2 Peter Cook, Drawing: The Motive Force of Architecture. (Architectural Design Primer), 12.
3 Lauren Mitchell, PHD Candidate, Rhetorics, Communication, and Information.
4 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 25.
5 Perry Kulper, “Representing beyond the Surface” (Arc CA Drawn Out. AIACC Design Awards Issue. 05.3), 18.
6 Jason Young, “Density of Emptiness,” Distributed Urbanism: Cities after Google Earth (London: Routeldge, 2010), 111.
7 Laboratory for Architecture and Urban Research, KTH School of Architecture-Stockholm, accessed June 3, 2011,
8 Stan Allen, Practice: Architecture Technique + Representation. (Routeldge: New York, NY, 2009), 12.
9 Jason Young, “Density of Emptiness,” Distributed Urbanism: Cities after Google Earth (London: Routeldge, 2010), 111.
10 Belinda Barnet, “Infomobility and Technics: some travel notes,” accessed June 3, 2011,
11 Manual De Landa, “Immanent Patterns of Becoming” (Lecture at European Graduate School, 2009).