Blocks (5)- Maps 2015 (16) Barcelona as seen by the tax man

pbarna 0-0

French geographer Yves Lacoste used to say that geography is since its inception a war tool. It’s not my aim to contradict him, but in fact urban cartography is since its inception a tool to levy taxes… here are the primary results of processing the cadastral maps of Barcelona by assigning a 3 m height to each level above ground… More soon.



Blocks (4) El Viso

El Viso as seen from the south, according to cadastral data

El Viso as seen from the south, according to cadastral data

El Viso is a residential area built in Madrid in 1933-1936 according to the 1925 Low Coast Housing Act. It never really was a worker’s neighborhood, as it soon became an area for middle classes and intellectuals.

El Viso. Lot area (in sq m). Red circles are proportional to the residential floor area for each lot

El Viso. Lot area (in sq m). Red circles are proportional to the residential floor area for each lot

Viso 2

Nowadays it is a kind of anomaly just by the denser area of Paseo de la Habana- Castellana. The original terraced homes have changed, gaining some levels here and ther, and some are now the location for other uses. However, the layout and the feeling of low density are still there. You can judge yourself thanks to google street view.

El Viso as seen from the east, according to cadastral data. On the background the AZCA towers show their presence.

El Viso as seen from the east, according to cadastral data. On the background the AZCA towers show their presence.

Biblio (125) Morphological analysis of traditional urban tissues according to UNESCO

Biblio 125-2-morfol unesco

UNESCO published this text, by Alain Borie and François Denieul, in 1984. The World Heritage Convention was enacted in 1972, and the first properties were inscribed in 1978, so this is a rather early text in the production of the “world heritage” concept in its urban derivations.

This is a classical manual, based on the decomposition of the urban tissues in systems: lots, streets, buildings, open spaces… a lot of images in the final part.

Maps 2015 (13) Nolli

The map of Rome drawn by Giambattista Nolli in 1748 is one of those documents that any planner (or at least any architect- planner) would like to have for the cities in which she works. It is the ancestor of many maps used in historic district plans. Sure, nowadays those historic district plans can also include detail regarding the layout of non-monumental buildings, but the debt towards this pioneering map is what it is…Alongside the five weeks in balloon by Jules Verne and the maps of Turgot for Paris and Texeira for Madrid, it is one of those works that predate such things as google maps…

The University of Oregon has a website in which you can get a look at the document; the app allows a comparison with current satellite images. Berkeley allows the access to jpg portions of the map.


Blocks (1)


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a block is “an area of land surrounded by four streets in a city”. It is one of the less specific definitions among the languages I have consulted, but it gives a number of four streets, so there is a hint of a quadrangular shape somewhere. The Oxford dictionary, despite a more complex urban layout in Britain, says “a group of buildings bounded by four streets”, but it also recognizes that in America this applies to an area (no need for buildings)… bound by four streets.

What is relevant in terms of architecture and urban planning in a block?

  • Size, minimal in middle age cities or Genoa, and enormous in Berlin and other cities.
  • Treatment of courts or internal spaces, when they exist
  • Permeability between street and court
  • The way the street and the lateral façades relate: continuous or not, with varying setbacks by level…
  • The shape of angles
  • Differences in height between buildings

These are the subjects for the next weeks.

Shapes and outlines (3) Hills

Mont St Michel, France. Image from Wikipedia

mont st michel

Mont St Michel, France. OSM map

The shape of things can be the result of many factors. But usually the European middle ages cities were roughly circular in shape as this allowed a good protected area- wall length ratio. As there certainly existed good reasons to look for shelter, cities usually were placed on higher ground when compared to the surroundings, and often right on top of a hill. Mont St Michel is the clearest example (although by size it is not a city), but there are others, as Betanzos in Spain, where just 30 m (some 90 ft) of level difference already shows the issue. In these cases, the city plan shows relations between built volumes, but far from what the real urban space can provide. To begin with, side walls become visible as buildings along the street line are on different levels, but the ground level must also adapt.

Betanzos, as seen on the city website

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Shapes and outlines (1) Levels

We can somehow agree on the fact that the figure-ground diagrams are a first approach to the description of the urban space. But this leads to the need to define at which level you cut the urban shapes. For instance, let’s take Madrid cadastral map: the firs image shows the private lots (or those whose use is not entirely open, as it includes some public properties). This, in the end, renders the public rights of way of all kinds.

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If you erase all the spaces that have no visible buildings (including those that only have underground constructions), things change a lot. Most of the courtyards, parking and similar things disappear. It is what you usually see in these maps.

But we can go further, taking just elements whose height is above a certain level. Here, just those over 8 storeys. And the city becomes a different thing, with some logics more apparent, but other situations being less clear.