Architectural icons like Walter Gropius, Phillip Johnson, and Le Corbusier tirelessly challenged the way the world was designing in the 20th Century. But, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German-American pioneer of modern and minimalist architecture said it best, “Less is More”. Mies, as he was known, strived for simplicity and clarity in his post-World War I architectural designs. Buildings, furniture and teaching became his tools as he and others stripped away the ornament of architecture – all of it. Going as far as declaring, “Ornament is a crime.” The goal of minimalistic architecture is to make something great out of only what is necessary. You can see the progression of Mies’ work as he honed the craft of utilizing austere materials to design delicate and beautiful spaces.
You can start to identify minimalist design by noticing the integration of the following elements:
- Pure geometric forms
- Little to no trim or ornament
- Using simple materials like steel, concrete, stone or glass
- ‘Structural Honesty’ or exposing structural systems
- Spaces only defined by planar building elements or furniture
- Efficient, orthogonal components
- Repetition to give order and unify elements
- “Clean”, sleek lines
Mies and his work were one of the first truly designed under the ethos of “less is more”. Modern residential architecture frequently skew away from pure minimalism and toward a compromise of modern and traditional, known as a ‘Transitional’ style. However, the influence of minimalism is found in everything from the phone in your pocket to automotive design.
Minimalistic Architecture may not be for everyone – and that’s okay! Sometimes it can be perceived as cold at first glance. There is often have a predisposed expectation of what homes and residential architecture should look like. New construction of minimalistic design probably isn’t it. But done right, minimalism can be welcoming and inviting. The designers of your smartphone understood this to keep you engaged. The stylish lines on cars are designed by wind drag coefficient and minimalist product designers.
Simple design elements, without ornamentation or decoration, are a huge part of minimalism. Condensing the content and form of an object to its most basic level reveals that which is truly essential to the nature of architecture.
Previous to the groundbreaking work completed by Mies, minimalist architecture rose from the Cubism of De Stijl and Bauhaus in the 1920s. The next step, taken by Mies, was to take the lead from the angular lines of Cubism to the premise minimalism optimized the power of architectural space.
What many do not realize that previous to the influence of the Cubists, was the influence of the traditional simplicity of the Japanese aesthetic and its accompanying Zen philosophy. This simplicity was a way for the spirit to achieve inner freedom and calm. The result was a reflection of this desired Zen in their personal lives as well as their homes and gardens.
This Zen aesthetic started to reign in the ostentatiousness of western architecture as early as the 18th century and its influence slowly crept into the mainstream, subtly changing its direction by finding value in empty space: not everything needed to be decorated.
The basic premise of Japanese aesthetic principles strives to find beauty in the natural state of objects – without decorative purpose, just as they are in their state of being. Finding intrinsic value in forms of nature that we, as a society, take for granted is known as, “wabi-sabi” and fundamental to Minimalism. Another key foundation to Minimalism is the Japanese principle of, “ma”, or emptiness. This requires large, open spaces to force the contemplation of stillness and the simplicity of the remaining, essential forms. Minimalist design is grounded by a third principle, “seijaku”, or stillness. This is a meditative state brought to life by the principles of design. Tranquility is encouraged by the aesthetics of simplicity. If a busy space creates a busy mind, it is easy to see how a clean and simple space creates a clutter-free life. This is fundamental to Minimalism.
Scandinavian Minimalism also joined the design conversation as a way to soften some of the harder aspects of Zen-inspired Minimalism. Softer colors prevail, designing with “Hygge” (comfort) in mind, environmental efficiency – building with the environment in mind – is huge, and light and contrasting patterns break up some of the harsher angular elements. In short, they make the Scandanavian influence on minimalism more comfortable: they design architecture and structures to live minimally, putting the person more in front of the space rather than space being the sole focus.
When it comes to color, white still rules Scandanavian Minimalism, but there is room for muted basic colors or even pastels dialed way down. Neutral colors blend seamlessly with natural wood, a cornerstone of any Scandanavian-inspired element.
As clutter is detested, so too is useless furniture. If there is a table, there is storage. If there is a chest, use it. Form has function. Function has form. Create a minimalist space but create one that is useful.
The Scandinavian love of the outdoors is no secret. Scandinavian Minimalism brought some elements of the outdoors inside. Plain blonde wood and natural stone are integral parts of building in this style.
But Scandinavian Minimalism’s primary focus is comfort or “Hygge”. Ceramics for tea and coffee, giant wool blankets, natural animal skins, they all lend warmth to a minimalist-inspired space.
Lastly, lighting is integral. While windows are central to this feature, Scandinavians spent much of the winter in dark. Candles and warm, layered, artificial lighting like table lamps and task lighting bring light and warmth to Scandinavian homes and a minimally-inspired one as well.
These elements are all the early, fundamental groundwork for minimalism as minimalism employs basic geometric shapes, harmonious colors, natural textures, open-plan spatial arrangements, clean finishes, extensive use of integrated windows and the use of negative spaces.
With the recent focus on decluttering one’s life and the accompanying philosophy of simplicity along with the popularity of shows whose influences are pulled directly from Mies’, “less is more” philosophy (i.e., Marie Kondo, “Does this spark joy?”), Perkins Architecture has seen renewed interest in minimal house architecture in modern residential architecture and residential architectural styles. As Tulsa architects, we are excited about minimalist architecture. It offers challenges that traditional architecture does not encounter. There is more of a focus on the empty or negative space that is the opposite of the ornamentation and designing for function that traditional architecture offers.
More importantly, as creative humans living in three-dimensional spaces, we value opportunities to design minimally. Clean, open space is a functional canvas in which our clients live their lives, the materials in the room breathe, there is a more natural flow.
There is a zen-like calm in the simplicity we appreciate as architects. With minimalism architecture, there is a peaceful calm in the absence of clutter.