Reading public space through plan drawings

Cultural architecture is usually discussed in terms of its formal aesthetic or symbolic meaning, and the actual experienced space receive less attention than the exterior imagery. Urban experience is often studied in social science, although only with marginal connection to the design and programming of architectural space. Therefore, a renewed perspective to look at the experienced public space at cultural buildings can fill the gap in the predominately iconic architectural discourse, while providing spatial analysis to the study of behaviour in disciplines such as sociology and anthropology. This article proposes a methodological approach to read cultural architecture and its public space through orthographic drawings, specifically targeted at the spatial structure and its social implication. Furthermore, as public activities do not stop at the building façade, our consideration of public space should extend beyond the exterior space surrounding the museum or theatre, but across building threshold into the interior atrium or foyer.

This reading of cultural space through plan drawing is framed by the two key ideas — the Nolli Map that denotes continuous public space through interior-exterior, and the Social Logic of Space that look at how spatial condition reflects social relationship.


Nolli, G., (1736-1748). Pianta Grande di Roma.

The Nolli-Map of 17th century Rome mapped out public space that includes exterior open space and publicly accessible interior, at the time are mainly churches and market – these places are comparable to today’s museum and shopping center. The relationship of public-private space in the Nolli-Map is represented as void vs solid in form of a figure-ground map, which can be developed into a spectrum of gradients measuring against its public accessibility. As the accessible interior is denoted as same as public open space, it provides a spatial reading that flow across building threshold, with an experience similar to that of an urban stroll. While most cultural architecture is designed with substantial public interior that is accessible to the public, a reading of public space through figure-ground gives. a picture of the continuous void space instead of just the solid exterior form. Using the same notation for open space and accessible interior emphasis the spatial connectivity and experiential quality instead of visual perception of architecture as an object. This way to look at the integrated urban and architectural space that highlights the public aspect is particularly helpful in the study of cultural architecture. As we investigate on how institutional intention is manifested through spatial design, the Nolli-style figure-ground drawing can be instrumental to examine spatial qualities such as accessibility, openness and permeability.

Hillier, B., & Hanson, J. (1984). The Social Logic of Space.

A spatial reading as suggested by the Nolli-Map allow us to extract the accessible public space as the subject of investigation, which is then studied with an objective to explore social relations manifested through spatial organization. The study (and formulation) of socio-spatial relation is the foundation of space syntax, an analytical method developed since the 1980s by Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson. It has now become into a sophisticate digital application for scale from a room to a city-region, yet the fundamental idea is based on the simplest spatial form — the “elementary cell” — as defined by a boundary and opening, with social interpretation such as inclusion or exclusion. Spatial sequence can then be understood as “primary syntax” of linear, ring or tree structure, corresponding to different type of social relation:

  • A linear structure is sequential in organization, often seen in processional space such as a temple.
  • A tree structure has a centralized space and distribute into subordinate space, it is usually seen in a hierarchical setting such as a palace.
  • A ring structure is more flat, usually denotes equal status among different spatial components, as a more liberal organization that allows multiple circulation options.

The element of “boundary” is highlighted for its functional capacity to limit or control spatial continuity (Hillier & Hanson). The aperture of control became a proxy to discuss issues such as hierarchy, or social relation between inhabitants and visitors. The cases described by in The Social Logic of Space were largely in domestic settings, yet the sequence of public space at cultural buildings can also be analysed with similar criteria, allowing us to discover another type of social relation – that between the authority (cultural institution) and the public.


The spaces at a cultural building can be categorised into three types: exterior public space, interior public space, and functional space. The exterior and interior public space are spaces associated with the cultural institution but free for the general public to use, while the functional spaces are specific destinations such as galleries, the concert hall or auditorium, accessible only to ticket-holders. The flow between various type of spaces and the movement across threshold demonstrate spatial permeability, while the figure-ground diagram with functional (destination) in porche can reveal accessibility and connectivity of public spaces.

figure-ground plan of the HKCC Auditoria and surrounding, where functional (private) space is porched as solid

Let’s take the Hong Kong Cultural Centre as an example to read public space in this approach. A continuous accessible space through the building can be read in the ground plan with functional space porched as solid. The void of the public space extends from the harbor-front plaza, through the atrium, and connecting to the street-side passage. It depicts an “actual” experience of how one would walk through the space, in contrast to the popular image of the HKCC as a monument with open space around it. In fact, the atrium of the HKCC is often used as a through passage to the waterfront, especially during hot summer days. This has shown the potential of how interior of public buildings can be (and should be) incorporated into the urban fabric.

spatial structure diagram of the HKCC

The spatial structure diagram denotes a tree-structure organization with the atrium as the centre. This space is accessible from multiple directions, where different approaches gather at the atrium space that act as a distribution point to various functional spaces of theatre and concert hall. Besides the ground level public space, the original design included an upper level foyer connecting to the terrace walkway, which turns it into a ring-structure that allows multiple routing option. However, the upper level is now accessible only to ticket-holders to performances, such operational control has reduced the more liberal ring-structure into the hierarchical tree-structure.


This article proposed a different way to read cultural architecture and its public space, with an approach that emphasis on human-scale experience over monumental image, and to further analysis how spatial organization reflects social relations. The brief account on HKCC began to unpack the complexity of its spatial (and therefore social) construct, serving as the baseline for further investigation on the formation of public space at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

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