Throughout history, this exploration of the outer world partially reverts to the inside to the exploration of the human mind. After all, the conception of order is highly bound to human perception thus understanding the organizational capabilities of the human mind is a precondition for understanding the principles that orchestrate the creation of an orderly environment.
Remarkable work of Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Köhler, and Max Wertheimer established the field of Gestalt psychology that was investigating the ability of human mind to organize perceived patterns in such way that the simplest obtainable structure results.¹ Gestalt Theory emphasized that the perceived whole is other than the sum of its parts; that is, the attributes of the whole are not deducible from analysis of the parts in isolation. The Gestalt principles ventured far out from merely visual domain and were applied to social psychology, aesthetics and economic behaviors. In the visual domain, Gestalt theorists established a series of principles of perceptual organization that human mind would produce as a response to a particular visual stimulus.
The main principles were defined as laws of proximity, continuity, closure, similarity, symmetry, common fate, enclosure, and figure/ground (Figure above).
Each category was describing a very specific set of responses produced by the human mind. The law of figure/ground is of particular interest. It asserts that when the human mind perceives an object, it separates whole figures from their background in order to recognize what is being seen. The figure is things, and the ground is substance. A well-known illustration of figure-ground relationship is presented in figure below.
Rubin’s vase exemplifies the possible relationships and the occurring instability between the object and its immediate environment while being viewed. The diagram can be perceived in two states. On one hand, if the central black region is perceived as a vase shape, the white region becomes formless and is not perceived as a particular object. On the other hand, if both sides of the white region are seen as two facing profiles, the black region is not perceived as an object. While the human mind can switch between the two ways of seeing the diagram, recognition of both vase and face silhouettes at the same time is not possible. Gestaltists defined this ambiguous phenomenon of human perception as a state of multistability. It is important to note that this process of distinction between figure and ground is a cognitive process and it is not limited to the visual domain. The same principle can also be applied to stimuli received by the brain from other senses for example audition. We can hear a speech on the background of the patter of the rain.²
In the field of architecture, this perceptual principle is used to create analytical tools for defining the geometry of architectural artefacts by means of separating it from its immediate environment. To a certain extent, any architectural drawing is a form of a figure/ground diagram where the figure of the artifact is extracted from the undifferentiated field of its environment by means of defining boundaries (See Below).
However, when investigating the built environment in its entirety, one is dealing with figure-ground relationships of immense complexity. This complexity ventures far beyond the binary correspondence described in Rubin’s diagram and can be implied in a rather abstract manner. In architectural theory, the figure and the ground are no longer understood as merely visual or physical entities but also as superimposed concepts that shape each other. These complex relationships that exist between the environment as a whole and its constituent parts are the substance of what can be understood as an architectural context.
: Kurt Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology (New York: Routledge, 1967), 158–160.
: Kurt Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology (New York: Routledge, 1967), 200.