Architecture encompasses form, function, aesthetics, space, movement, composition, scale, environment, ornament, and most importantly, massing. The first step to any architectural design is the most basic three-dimensional form of the building structure, it refers to the physical bulk of a structure. This is also known as the building massing, which is an overarching conceptual form that the building is set to take. 

Massing in architecture is the composition of spaces together with additions and subtraction of its forms and is quite rudimentary at the beginning of the design process. A building’s shape, size, scale, and orientation, all define the massing of its volume. Massing can be additive, subtractive, irregular, dynamic, or stable, but it should mainly represent what the building and its inhabitants stand for and represent. 

Composing and manipulating three-dimensional forms into a dynamic configuration helps relate the building with its immediate context and its external subparts. It is crucial in design as it helps the designer identify the impact of the building within its urban environment. Massing also plays an important role in the sustainability and environmental impact of a building. It uses the general shape and size of the built structure to minimize energy loads by using passive heating, cooling, and natural daylighting. 

The way a structure is oriented can ensure an ample amount of energy from the sun and natural ventilation. In colder climates, massing can be leveraged to minimize the surface area with respect to volume to avoid unwanted heat loss whereas, in hotter climates, shading can be prioritized. Modulation of building masses can thus help with a smart design that is sensitive to its surroundings.

Dating back to Rome in 125 AD when the Pantheon was built, the skyline of the city wasn’t defined by tall buildings and bridges, it was a city of domes. The solid masses that define the structure are composed of the main cylinder, a half-sphere or a dome sitting on top, and an additive cube. This cube, usually recessed, defines the portico of the Pantheon as the main entry point. It is covered with a triangular pediment to further enhance the first view of the temple. 

Domes were used to representing eternity and heaven whereas the cylindrical base represented the earth. This geometry was characteristic of Roman architecture and can be seen in several other structures. 

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Pantheon, Rome ©PinoPacifico

The context of the Ancient Roman urban landscape was mainly residential, commercial, religious, and leisure-centric. The rectangular void of the forum in front of the portico is preceded by an obelisk in the middle of the void. The obelisk was created in Ancient Egypt but was used to demarcate monumental structures. Within the structure, the dome features an oculus or the ‘eye’ that represents the sun. This opening yields a path of light that moves across space and defines the interior of the Pantheon. 

The massing of the pantheon helped in articulating a connection between humans and the divine realm that gave a sense of humility to the Romans. The temple articulated discipline and a sense of awe to remind the people of the existence of greater power. 

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Pantheon Massing Study ©cambridge.org
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Interior of the Pantheon, Rome 1747 by Giovanni Paolo Panini ©fineartamerica

There are a multitude of buildings and designers who successfully understand the power of the solid form. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural style has been some of the most cherished buildings built by the iconic designer. Wright uses the building mass as a central element in his design of Fallingwater, a structure that marked the beginning of his career. He emphasizes horizontality, hierarchy, and integration with nature in this contemporary residential design.

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Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright ©Carol M Highsmith

He uses cantilever blocks in multiple directions away from the central stacked core. These blocks contain the bedrooms, terraces, roofs, and openings that reach out to the existing landscape in the Bear Run nature reserve. The form and the function of the structure are considered as one singular idea, and the site structure and context of the building are designed to be complementary to each other. 

The massing plays homage to the natural surroundings by emphasizing the idea that all elements of the building are growing from the central core as if they are growing from the earth. The design is truly modern and the concrete cantilevers that lie naturally over the waterfall evoke a sense of timeless beauty. 

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Falling Water studies ©Symone Hong

Completed in 2014, the Fondation Louis Vuitton by Frank Gehry is arguably one of the most complex structures built and has successfully redefined architecture. Gehry has effectively used 21st-century technology to symbolize the cultural calling of France in this museum design. Located next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne, the famous park on the west side of Paris, Gehry’s building hopes to embody the lightness of nineteenth-century glass and garden architecture. 

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Fondation Louis Vuitton ©Iwan Baan

The building consists of an assembly of blocks referred to as ‘icebergs’. These forms were placed in a basin within the existing landscape so that it fits into the natural environment of the garden. This project has started the ball rolling for innovation in digital design and construction. 

The massing studies and design challenges were developed using advanced digital and fabrication technologies with a web-hosted 3D digital modeling system. The centralized model facilitated a new scale of design computation which was key in solving complex geometric issues of the project. It was also awarded the prestigious BIM Excellence Award in 2012 by the AIA. 

Although the building has received a lot of criticism for its design relating to the context, the massing studies with the innovative software have intelligently adapted itself to its design requirements to form a complex and successful design and its eventual construction. 

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Fondation Louis Vuitton ©Gehry Partners

Modern architecture is constantly changing with advancements in technology created daily, and the power of engineering and technology come together to form sustainable, beautiful, and pragmatic architecture. Only time can tell how relevant or successful a building can be but architectural massing helps in creating a strong conceptual design foundation that can help to shape the life experience of its user for years to come.

Author

Rashmi Nair is an architect, interior designer, and fashion illustrator who is an ardent lover of all things design. She strives to be sustainable in design and life and strongly believes in the ‘Less is More’ idealogy. She enjoys exploring museums, reading, making lists, and a hot cup of coffee

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