What is building massing?

There are many things that go into designing a building:  form, function, aesthetics, etc.  This post will focus on the aesthetics of a building.  There is a term architects like to throw around called building “massing”.  What is massing you ask?  Well it is pretty much what it sounds like; how the building looks in terms of basic masses, or chunks.  For example:  take a look at a neoclassical building like the White House.  If you look at the south façade of the building, it looks like a large rectangle with a cylinder sort of smooshed into it.  This may sound rudimentary/crude/basic…etc., and it is, but that is how architects roll.  When we start thinking about projects (size in this case does not matter…ahem), we always think about the massing on some level.  Let’s look at another building that would help us understand massing.  Take a look at the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) in Chicago.  Even though this building is obviously a lot taller than the White House, it is still made up of masses.  These masses are overlapping extruded squares with varying heights.

Massing is interesting because every single building in the world deals with it.  If you look at a boxy office building it has massing.  What is the massing?  Well some office buildings are literally a box (heights don’t matter), while other are “boxy” as opposed to the mass of a literal box…meaning it looks like a bunch of boxes that are integrated together; again like the Sears Tower.  massingA lot of commercial buildings are boxy for the simple reason that constructing buildings that are boxy are cheaper to build because everything stacks up nice and easy.  They can build one level and then stack the next level on top, then repeat.  Now the con of going this route is that a lot of times the beauty suffers…or the building lacks beauty all together.   Architecture is ultimately subjective and what one person likes another may not.  It is very much like being in love where beauty is in the eye of the beholder.   I can tell you this though, in my humble opinion I have never looked at a building that resembled a box and found beauty in it.  I don’t care how you clad the building, it is still just a box.  There are a lot of modern buildings popping up that are literally boxes with roofs on them where the architects are looking to add beauty by the cladding or the materiality.  Some people might refer to this as the “skin” of the building.  Some have used recycled wood, metal, concrete panels, metal panels, siding, and other cladding materials to dress up the building but in the end, when my eye looks at it, it still registers as a box.  Now it may be a cool box, but it is still a box!

The word “box” and “building” tend to be connected often in common vernacular when talking about “big box” companies such as Target, Walmart, Publix, Lowes, Home Depot, etc.  These buildings are simply large boxes (varying dimensions obviously) but they all do the same thing; build the cheapest building that holds the most stuff!  Now as an architect I am of course intrinsically opposed to any building that doesn’t make at least some sort of effort to be beautiful.  I do, however, give credit to some of these big box stores in that they do at least try to dress up the front facades to make them more appealing.  Ikea is another example of a big box company except instead of trying to dress up their box, they go out of their way to accentuate the “boxiness” by not having any frills on their building at all.  The word “Ikea” actually stands out very boldly on their building because of the stark facades.  Now this I do think this is sort of cool in that they are allowing the building to be what it wants to be.  They aren’t trying to make it into something it isn’t.  They aren’t saying their building is Falling Water or the Taj Mahal…they are telling people that according to them, less is more.  I like this as an architectural concept because the architecture of their building trickles down into what they do which is create furniture that is extremely utilitarian and inexpensive…but in doing that their furniture is very effective and some may even consider it beautiful.  In architecture we might say that the building is “honest”…or that there is honesty in the architecture.

This brings up another topic entirely that concerns massing:  to be or not to be honest?  Sometimes we can look at a building (in most cases) and immediately understand it.  We can look at a strip mall and see a bunch of storefront glass and immediately know that it is a one-story building with space inside.  We can do the same for most office buildings – we look at them no matter how tall they are and right away realize that they have different horizontal levels and each window is approximately at the eye height of most people.  Now there isn’t anything wrong with this…as a matter of fact most people not only expect this in architecture but they crave it.  Now on the other end of the spectrum, there could be a building that has so many different massing elements and so many fluctuations in the buildings fenestration (arrangement of windows and doors) that how the building actually works may be hard to figure out.  Once again we go back to my humble opinion:  I personally love buildings that aren’t completely honest.  They have a certain swagger about them.  They are kind of like the person your parents didn’t want you to date but you really wanted to.  They have an edge.  That have the “it” factor.  When I look at a building like Moshe Safdie’s “Habitat” in Montreal I can pretty much understand that each variation of the massing holds a level on the interior…or is it two levels or even three? but what makes it really interesting is that scale is completely lost because of the way the building is designed.  What I mean is that when you look at it, it is hard to tell if a boxy component is 20’x20’ or 80’x80’.  This brings the project interest.  Now this is also an example of what some would call “brutalist” architecture…but that is for another post.

Another good example of massing is my Urban North Townhome project.  Click here to learn more about it.  This is obviously a townhome project, but what makes it interesting (to me at least) is that it is extremely difficult to tell where one unit starts and the other ends.  This is because of the overlapping massing.  Fenestration also plays a large role in confusing people as to which massing element belongs to which unit.  Even though the two buildings use a bunch of different massing elements, they still come together with unifying elements such as colors, textures, orthogonal shapes, the concept of modules, and a few other things.  I’ll keep the other things buried in my secret sauce…

Buildings with interesting massing tend to bring very extreme opinions and reactions.  I always see this as a positive. If a bunch of people look at a building and afterwards start talking about the weather, chances are the building isn’t memorable…which means by my definition of architecture that it doesn’t have beauty.  It is analogous to a beautiful woman that walks by and everyone looks…that is the reaction I aim for with my buildings.  Now just like with the woman, some would immediately say, “she is too skinny” “nose is too pointy” “I hate her lips” etc. etc. while others may say, “she has a perfect body”  “what a great nose” “perfect lips”…you get the point.  What a boring world it would be if all of our buildings looked the same.  It would also be boring if we all considered the same things beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder with people…and buildings! 🙂

I tell people all the time that one of the many things I love about architecture is the fact that you don’t have to be an architect or a rocket scientist to talk about a building.  Everyone has their opinion…and they’re entitled to it.  It can be something as simple (and extreme) as, “I hate that building” or “this building makes me feel so comfortable” or “I love the way this building blends in to the site”.  I’ve talked to many people about their opinions on particular buildings and they all tend to preface their opinions by announcing that they aren’t architects as if that means their opinions don’t matter.  That is the point:  everyone’s opinion does matter.  It is entirely subjective.  Unlike cardio-thoracic surgery where you either save the patient or the patient dies…black and white, architecture entirely exists in a sea of gray.  That is what I love about it.  It is something everyone can relate to.  Everyone was born in a building. We all tend to work, play, live, pray, love, etc. in buildings.  They give us memories and in some cases are even handed down to future generations.

If you’d like to talk about your next project and how we can make it meet your standards of beauty, please feel free to contact me directly here.