Why is modern architecture shifting towards minimalism?

When we talk about minimalism – what do we really mean by that? Simplicity became a way of life during the 20th century. Due to an overwhelming bombardment of colors and designs, our perception longed for simplicity.

If, for example, one were comparing a 19th century living room with a 21st century living room, we understand that all the playful attributes like storytelling clocks and bookshelves disappear within the 19:6 rectangle box called TV. The room surrounding those early TV consoles transformed into an almost sterile and flat living space, perhaps due to the hypnotic glow of the square box.

Compared even with the last century when a comfortable, affluent household would have had no more than a few hundreds possessions, we are now drowning in objects. The present-day equivalent of that same household will now have as many as several thousand possessions. And while our grandparents would have made their things last at least one lifetime, we are happy to discard ours as soon as they show the slightest sign of wear. In the Japan today for example, even the idea of a second-hand house is scarcely socially acceptable.

Minimalism is an aesthetic often associated with Japan.  This notion may arise from the limitations imposed on the Japanese by lack of space. However, the idea that minimalism is based on an exclusively Japanese view would be incorrect.

There is also the simple beauty of the functional, which was until very recently a living tradition and present in every pre-historic society. Simple tools and craftsman-made dwellings all had an unaffected artlessness that showed a remarkable power and quality (take a look at some of the photos of the Bernard Maybeck home in Berkeley).

I found a great quote of John Pawson and how he (as an Architect) approaches minimalism digested within his “form finding process”: 

“I don’t draw much. When I design, I have a very strong mental picture of a space, and how I want to organize. I make quick stabs at drawing it on open paper, just as I am analyzing the elements, and how they flow together – ceiling, walls and stairs. I look for a balance of proportion, scale, light and geometry. Both scale and proportion are tools that the designer can bring to bear in creating artefacts, buildings or spaces that have the quality of simplicity. “

Another definition of proportions by the artist Donald Judd was “reason made visible”.

Natural light has an important role in bringing these characteristics to life. Light, and its play on architectural spaces, inside and out, has the power to shape and transform them.

The quality of every component, every detail, and every junction has been reduced or condensed to the so-called “essential’. Definitions of “simplicity” are not simple.  On one hand compositions which are largely repetitious tend to exhibit the quality of simplicity. Pure geometry is another quality that seems to make simplicity more likely. The mathematically ideal forms – spheres, cubes, cones and pyramids – have a calm sense of response that is missing in more complicated or less pure forms.

There are those who equate simplicity with the sparseness of modernism, with the machine-age aesthetic, stripped of ornaments, in which form and detail are reduced down to the lowest common denominator or blandness. But simplicity is not the same as unthinking utilitarianism or pragmatism. To modern architects GOOD DESIGN is a question of as little design as possible.