John Pawson’s monastery in Bohemia

The gap that exists between theory and practice is a challenge in so many pursuits, and Minimalist architecture is just one that struggles with that perennial problem. In 1908, Adolf Loos wrote a memorable essay, “Ornament and Crime,” that advocated for a more streamlined aesthetic. And yet to create that illusion of austere perfection, the process cannot be carried out in line with the ethos of simplicity.

From Thomas De Monchuax‘s article in the New York Times, Why Less Isn’t Always More:

Today’s most celebrated Minimalist architect, John Pawson, counts among his clients both poverty-sworn monks and the fashion designer Calvin Klein, whose own designs specialize in enabling you to pay much more for the right much less. Pawson’s work happens to be beautiful and kind; its proportions are the natural ratios that you find in shells and flowers. It gives you room to breathe. And yet it’s subject to elegant deceits.

A building of few details would seem to be a building of few secrets. But austerity in architecture connotes a visual and functional transparency that it completely fails to provide. Any seamless-seeming building is full of complex joints and junctions, fixes and fudges that make a thousand parts look like a single monolithic, sculptural whole. To look as if you left everything out, you have to sneak everything in. What seems spartan is usually, invisibly, baroque.

Monchaux’s article draws parallels between this often obscured reality and the hidden costs of the fiscal and economic austerity we are witnessing around the world. “Austerity may be aesthetically pleasing, but that rarely translates to good policy.” And the irony plays out in what those Minimalist spaces speak to as well:

Austerity…is as much glamorous as solemn. As an aesthetic category, it’s strangely aspirational. It can become a mode of luxury, even excess. The difference between a minimalist room and an under-furnished room is freedom of choice.

Today’s minimalism conjures a life of such intangible ease that the mere creature comforts of visibly abundant stuff are transcended. It makes a near ethical virtue out of an aesthetic practice of refusal (perhaps extending, disconcertingly, to notions of physical aesthetics in which obesity is associated with poverty and to be too rich is to be too thin). While Mies and his contemporaries introduced their skinny-framed, flat-roofed, white-walled architecture in the context of prototype public housing, they perfected it in deluxe retreats like the Farnsworth House.

The irresistibility of this aesthetic is so powerful to me that I am seduced instantly into its illusion of perfection. This article is a much needed reminder that everything needs be seen in a fuller sense, a view that incorporates hidden costs and implications.


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

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