CURIOUS LITTLE DIAGRAMS
On Gestalt Psychology and the Urbanism of Kevin Lynch and Colin Rowe. In Urban Infill 5
Gestalt psychology, which emerged in the early 20th century in Germany, developed the framework of figure and ground to decode the visual world. According to the Gestalt, humans see the world in terms forms and patterns that are stable, coherent, known to our mind. Gestalt psychology developed visual language centered on the black and white diagram. The diagrams were compelling illustrations and through their vocabulary of lines, planes and contours, that became deeply influential in art and architecture. Image of the City and Collage City are two instances where Gestalt concepts were applied to the study of the city. Beyond the ideas these texts contain, they continue to be influential because of the analytic and diagrammatic methods they developed.
Kevin Lynch’s Gestalt based research on the city began in the 1950’s under the influence of Gyorgy Kepes at MIT. Image of the City sought to understand how the cities are perceived and read and how its elements become symbolic and memorable. This was the first time the city had been considered in such subjective terms. Its methodological framework, which began with a detailed, empirical study of specific places, and used diagrams to extract key forms, geometries and dynamics, was adopted from Gestalt psychology. Through this method, the dynamics of different cities could be compared and contrasted, and propositions about universal qualities of cities could be forwarded.
Collage City was one of Colin Rowe’s later texts, and it was not his first engagement with Gestalt psychology. Again, Kepes was a notable influence, particularly in Rowe’s writings on transparency. In “The Crisis of the Object,” Rowe and Koetter argue that the modern city failed perceptually – on Gestalt terms. Using the urban figure ground diagram, the authors compared the morphologies of traditional European fabrics of solids punctuated by voids and the modernist city of towers on fields, diagnosing of the failings of the contemporary city.
THE SUBJECTIVE CITY
Lynch and Rowe constructed a new formal discourse on urbanism for architects. In it, buildings are recast as contingent elements of a within broader perceptual field that was the city. This discussion is distinct from urban planning, with its focus on land-uses and grids, and functionalist architecture of intrinsically motivated objects. Buildings conspire to define edges, make landmarks, and generate character. Cities were not treated as objective, demographic systems, but as subjective fields that needed to be considered relative to the perception of individuals.
In doing so, they developed a new agency for the diagram. For them, the diagram became a tool to decode subjective experience, rather than documents of objective realities.