Schwarzplan Berlin

Schwarzplan – Maps in Monochrome

If someone tells you to spell something out in black and white, they want you to express yourself clearly. No beating around bushes, no grey areas but definite distinctions.

If you were to demand this of a map, the explanation would probably be given in the form of what in German is known as the ‘Schwarzplan’. Two simple words fused together. Black. Plan. The straightforwardness of its German name expresses perfectly the concept it denotes: The representation of an area in terms of black and white, respectively indicating mass and void. Sadly, the English name for the same thing isn’t a calque of the German, black-plan, but the less dramatic and wordy ‘figure-ground diagram’. Imagine the following scenarios, one in a German architectural office, the other in its English counterpart: ‘Hol mir den Schwarzplan!’ sounds much weightier and urgent than ‘Diane, could you please bring me a copy of the figure-ground diagram, please?’

Mostly used by city planners, architects and urban designers, the idea of a figure-ground diagram goes back to 18th Century Rome, when Giambattista Nolli created a detailed map of 12 copper plates using the same basic principle. White symbolises unbuilt space, such as roads, parks and squares, and black indicates built space in terms of the ground-plan of the buildings. The result is something both abstract and filled with detail, a kind of practical Yin and Yang of the city. Figure-ground diagrams help to see the ratio of built space to that of empty space, enabling city planners to envisage areas that are conducive to a good communities, have a human scale and don’t lead to a disconnectedness between buildings and the further urban fabric.

The original figure-ground diagrams of inner-city Berlin were originally presented at the 7th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000, with information about the city in the years 1940, 1953, 1989 and 2001, with a projected plan for 2015. Below is a map of a slightly larger area of the city from 2010.

Schwarzplan Berlin 2010

It’s not the closing credits of Eastenders, it’s the figure-ground diagram of Berlin from 2010. The grey areas are planned projects.

An architect once told me that a figure-ground diagram is all you need to read into a city’s past. Though not everyone has had the benefit of an architect’s seven-year training, Berlin’s unique history can be put together when you look at its figure-ground map. It is possible to see how the different threads of history have weaved themselves into its fabric, still to be seen despite the city’s tumultuous past and perceived transience. From the socialist-planned wide boulevards of Karl-Marx-Allee and the open spaces around Alexanderplatz to the regimented grid system of ‘Friedrichstadt’ and the village-like character of 18th Century Rixdorf. Even the route of the Berlin Wall can be recognised through the comparatively as-yet unbuilt area behind the wall formerly known as the ‘death strip’.

And while this is all good and (perhaps) interesting, one way that this abstract monochrome entity might instigate something other than a detached reaction is if we look at the historical figure-ground diagrams of Berlin.

Berlin 1940

Berlin was a dense metropolis with a population approaching 4.5 million. Although the war had already begun, frequent air raids on Berlin didn’t start until 1943. The density of the inner-city urban areas can be seen by the closely-spaced masses of black and the relatively low amount of open or unbuilt space in between.



Figure-ground diagram, inner-city Berlin from 1940. Hover to reveal map from 1953

Berlin 1953

The war was over and control of the city had been split between the four allied powers. Around 45,000 tonnes of bombs had been dropped on Berlin, 50,000 people had lost their lives and over half a million flats – a third of the housing stock – had been destroyed. The population had gone down to 2.8 million and whole swathes of the city had been razed.

What does it take to comprehend destruction on this magnitude? Sometimes it takes the abstract to get a feeling for the real, sometimes a small detail to grasp the abstract. The figure-ground diagram from 1953 tells us, in its undeniably simple way, that many previously black regions had become white, that mass had become void, multiplied many-thousand-fold throughout Berlin.
In conjunction with historical events of the time, it is possible to use these diagrams to start to piece together a comprehensive understanding of the whole picture of a city. Further exploration of these monochrome maps reveals more and more signals and indications of history. To the right of the 1953 figure-ground diagram is Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee), begun in 1952 as part of a national building plan for East Berlin; a showcase boulevard in the socialist classicist style. It is along this street that construction workers started to strike in 1953, leading to the 17th June uprising that was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops, leaving over a hundred people dead. Black and white and red all over. Cross-referenced with history, the black marks on the white page start to spell out the story of the city.

Not just a griddy space

While these maps can be of use to architects, historians and urban designers, they need not be limited to these practical fields of application. Another useful way of using the figure-ground diagram of your home city is quite pointless. Simply looking around the binary cityscape, identifying which areas you can recognise, pinpointing familiar buildings and finding your block of flats are all noble exercises to while away the time while the evenings are black and the spaces between the buildings in the city are actually white.

As an introduction to seeing Berlin in two-dimensional monochrome, here is a small quiz. Below are six familiar patches of Berlin’s physical fabric, see if you can identify them. Roll over the image for a clue, or use the 2010 map above to see these areas in context. Answers below.


A wonderful roundabout of urbanism, tourism and substance abuse


Picturesque and smug, with cobbles and a famous Christmas market


Imposing Nazi architecture on a huge scale


Historically important – destroyed – no-man’s-land – rebuilt


A concert hall and a couple of cathedrals


The symbols of Berlin, tourist central

To get a further insight into the development of Berlin by viewing the demolition plans (Abrisspläne) and new building plans (Neubaupläne) since 1940, visit the Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt Berlin website (German). If all this two-dimensional information is too flat, or if you want to feel like a giant, the Berlin City Models exhibition, with scale models of the city, can be visited at Am Köllnischen Park 3 in Mitte. Entrance is free.

Answers: 1. Kottbusser Tor 2. Rixdorf 3. The former airport building at Tempelhof 4. Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz 5. Gendarmenmarkt 6. The Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz