In art we speak of “negative” space as the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. This space, depending on design can sometimes achieve a yin/yang property where the field becomes the object and vice versa. In Architecture this space around and between objects can either be perceived as “negative” or “positive” depending on the intention of the design.
In 1748 Giovanni Battista Nolli produced a plan of Rome which renders private spaces such as dwellings as solid black and public spaces such as streets, squares and the interior spaces of public buildings as white (left photo). Notice the interplay between black and white and the “positive” qualities of the “subject” and “field” — which is which? Compare this to black and white field of a typical suburban development (right photo). Christopher Alexander, in A Pattern Language, describes the following in regard to the shape of spaces:
Outdoor spaces which are merely “left over” between buildings will, in general, not be used. There are two fundamentally different kinds of outdoor space: negative space and positive space. Outdoor space is negative when it is shapeless, the residue left behind when buildings — which are generally viewed as positive — are placed on the land. An outdoor space is positive when it has a distinct and definite shape, as definite as the shape of a room, and when its shape is as important as the shapes of the buildings which surround it. These two kinds of space have entirely different plan geometries, which may be most easily distinguished by their figure-ground reversal.
The principal of positive space can be applied to all realms of design.
A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, Christopher Alexander, 1977.