‘Minimalism’ is a relatively young player in the cultural / architectural lexicon.
Whether it’s Donald Judd’s desert concrete; or Malevich’s Black Square; or Mies van der Rohe; or John Pawson; the consensus built around that mode of art / architecture which shuns the aesthetically superfluous in favour of a clearer, simpler expression is of something that originates in the twentieth century.
That assertion reinforces the popular cultural idea of modernity (particularly in relation to architecture) as a reaction to (or, crucially perhaps, a reaction against) the more traditional or classical architectural vocabularies. In the UK at least, there is popular affection for those more established architectural languages, which tend to be characterised by overt decorative flourishes, whereas the ‘new’ – contemporary architecture(s) where decoration is often abandoned or diluted in favour of more formal and material restraint – is frequently treated with suspicion or condemnation.*
With that in mind it’s interesting to consider the essence of ‘minimalism’ (which, admittedly, is a slightly displeasing term), and more importantly; the context within which that approach to architecture is born. There is a delightful symmetry in the following quotes, firstly from the Italian Renaissance master, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), who stated that beauty was:
“that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body [read: building], so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse”… “Beauty is thus the essential idea, whereas ornament is an embellishment”.1
And secondly, John Pawson (b. 1949):
“the minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is not possible to improve it by subtraction”… “It is the result of the omission of the inessentials”. 2
Pawson may have been familiar with the Alberti reference, but nonetheless, there is a striking intellectual synergy between these statements. The conclusion that is tempting to draw is that the notion of boiling down material and formal expression in architecture to a reduced, or minimal, condition actually has a sense of ‘tradition’; a heritage that is informed by centuries of architectural scholarship, rather than being simply a contemporary element within the framework of Modernism. Perhaps with that in mind, it’s possible to see minimalist / reductivist architecture as a well-placed harmonious phrase within the whole narrative of architecture, as opposed to a reactionary incursion?!
Interestingly that preference for an ‘older’, more decorated aesthetic seems to apply to our civic and public buildings, and our (mass-built, particularly) homes; but not to the other designs that we frequently consume – our motor vehicles, electrical goods, phones etc. – where a cutting-edge contemporary aesthetic is always aspired to. Anyway, that’s a different area to which I may return on these pages… (see this text).
1. Leon Battista Alberti, ‘On the Art of Building in Ten Books’ (Ed / Trans: Rykwert / Leach / Tavernor, MIT Press, 1991).
2. John Pawson, ‘Minimum’ (Phaidon, 1996).
Additional source: Christian Illies / Nicholas Ray ‘Philosophy of Architecture’ (Cambridge Architectural Press, 2014).