Masses and Voids: An Introduction

One of the most valuable methods for studying urban spaces that I picked up in graduate school was masses and voids.  It’s a simple technique that takes the complexity and busyness of a satellite image and boils it down to geometric fundamentals, allowing observers to see how various buildings (masses) relate to each other across space.

Early efforts at masses and voids were done by placing a sheet of transparent wax paper over a top-down aerial image of a city or neighborhood, then using black pen to color over the buildings.  Some people still do it this way today, but the advent of GIS and graphic design software has made it easy to do on computer as well.

Expanded GESee these two images for an example.  The top image is a satellite photo of an industrial area in Shanghai’s Pudong District, which is being encroached upon by more residential development.  (In summer 2010 I spent two days counting cars at the intersection in the center of the image).  From the roads and various colored roofs, you can probably begin to get a feel for the distribution of built space across the area.

MV and RoadsThe image below shows the same satellite photo reduced to masses and voids, with the masses in this case being the buildings (black) and roads (gray).  Viewed this way it is much easier to tell which neighborhoods are older and more packed together, and which have more open space. The giant warehouse-esque industrial buildings also stand out.

I picked up masses and voids at Berkeley, where I saw it used most often to analyze neighborhoods in the Bay Area as well as great cities from the Western historical canon.  Interesting as it was, San Francisco, Paris, and the hill towns of Italy did seem rather limited subject matter given all that I had (and since have) observed around China.

Masses and voids work is simple but very time-consuming, which makes it ideal work to indulge in while binge-watching television or listening to podcasts. I’ll be throwing up more images of Chinese cities as my listening and viewing habits fluctuate.


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