Architectural Design Principles 101: Base, Middle, Top
Updated: Jun 4
There are all sorts of design principles. Depending on who you ask there are either 5, 7 or 12 commonly accepted architectural design principles. Personally, I like the list of 12: contrast, balance, rhythm, emphasis, movement, white space, proportion, scale, hierarchy, movement, contrast, unity, and variety. How architecture embodies these principles is the interesting part. Does it totally disregard the design principles or strictly adhere to them?
Base, Middle, Top
File it under hierarchy. Base, middle, top has been organically occurring in architecture since the beginning as a result of construction methods and responses to various environments.
The distinction between the layers is usually from the different construction methods that come about due to the different design problems of the layers. In the simplest form; the base is laid or piled up on the ground, the walls are stacked materials using gravity to stand up, and the roof has to defy gravity and span a void. These different characteristics tend to result in the use of different materials and methods which produces the distinctive layers.
The quintessential ancient example is, of course, the Parthenon in Athens. The base is a stepped slab. The middle consists of colonnades. The top is a, now mostly non-existent, gabled roof.
The base, middle, and top can also be distinguished by specific uses. Often, a building's ground level will be used for one thing, while several stories of the middle are used for another thing, and the top is either just covering it all up or has it's own distinct use.
High rise city buildings are some of the best examples of this. The base layer is typically pedestrian oriented with retail & restaurants. The middle layer is several stories of residential or offices. The top is a roof top terrace or where all the mechanical services of the building end up, or a mix of both but different than the uses below it.
As technology advanced, the layers could be become less distinct or made distinct on purpose as part of the design concept.
Base is a response to the ground condition. In most regions of the world, an accumulation of rain or snow is a concern and so you end up with buildings raised some distance off the ground. Even in dry regions, there is still a need to elevate the floor level to better keep out creepy crawlies. This is typically accomplished by a plinth or a base and commonly referred to as a foundation.
The base is also a statement about how the architecture touches the ground. Is it elevated on thin columns producing a very small footprint or is it a slab on the ground or is it built into the terrain using the landscape.
The most common form is a slab on the ground. Structurally, it's the most simple. The slab evenly spreads the load and to really simplify it, anyone can lay something on the ground. It's not complicated. Put down the base and build upwards, extending the shape of the base as you go.
The opposite of a slab on the ground is a series of columns providing a base. This method makes a "light" touch on the ground
The middle is the response to protection from basic environmental factors. Wind, sun, rain, snow, insects and other threats from the animal kingdom (including other humans) are all issues that the middle (aka walls) has to deal with.
As construction materials & methods advanced, less basic needs could also be taken into consideration. Glass as a building material was sprinkled intermittently since 3500BC but it really wasn't used as a window as we know it until the 1600sAD. Things that weren't necessary for survival like privacy and natural light are given more thought.
The top, or roof, is mostly there for protection from the environment. It's the layer that needs to defy gravity.
Base, Middle, Top: Classic Examples
Despite different architectural styles, these buildings all demonstrate clear bases, middles, and tops
I love this example because the top layer is so subtle. Same construction appearance as the middle but there is clearly a band of top that has no windows or openings.
Base, Middle, Top: Almost...
The most common way to go against the hierarchy of base, middle, top is to skip one of the layers. Typically, it's the base or middle that is disregarded. These examples all show a version of this:
You can argue in this example there is a middle (the glass and the void) but in it's simplest reduction, it's a base and a top.
This building has middle and top, no base