Minimalism | International

Keeping it simple

What makes a building a beautiful structure? Ornamentation on the front? Or is a building beautiful if it houses as many people as possible? Can we separate the aesthetic evaluation of a building from its construction circumstances and the ecological and human price it cost?

A golden bedroom, in the middle a richly decorated four-poster bed with red and gold curtains. On the right a fireplace, above it a mirror with a gilded frame, the walls are also covered with gold. From the high ceiling hangs a crystal chandelier.

Versailles castle is all about grandeur: a glimpse into the royal bedchambers

The 1730s saw the rise of the playful Rococo style, a jaunty heir to the grandiose splendour of the Baroque. Of course, not everyone could own such expensive buildings. While the most impoverished people starved, the aristocracy enjoyed the aesthetic comforts of the new architecture.

However, the opulent style of the “more” was not only based on blind pride of status, but on a well-founded ethical attitude: God distributes his gifts to the worthy. Material wealth is therefore simply a divine proof of love.

Following this thesis, the opulent style of the royal palace was also not considered greed or sin. On the contrary, golden chairs and silver vessels were evidence that the king ruled by the grace of God. No wonder, then, that those to whom the ornate gates of the Palace of Versailles were closed at the time soon developed a genuine hatred for the inhabitants of the magnificent building - and soon overthrew them.    

115 years after Louis XVI had to part with his Palace of Versailles and his head, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos published his seminal essay “Ornament and Crime”, in which he rejected superfluous decorative elements and described the aesthetic of “more” as ethically inferior.

“Less is more” is, however, more than just an aesthetic guiding principle”

The influential Swiss architect Le Corbusier created minimalist architecture entirely in the spirit of Loos - as a stark contrast to the rich building ornamentation of the Rococo.

This new architecture was based on an opposing ethical interpretation of social responsibility: the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, for example, of which Le Corbusier was one of the planners in 1927, was intended to provide an efficient solution for housing the masses of workers who were flooding into the cities due to rapid urbanisation.

The settlement was one of the great housing projects of its time and was characterised by simple interior design and relatively low construction costs. Thus, the aesthetic of "less" was given an ethical statement: a beautiful building is one that can provide affordable housing for many workers.

The Weissenhof project was led by the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who coined the phrase “Less is more”. This phrase also became the motto of the modernist movement, far beyond architecture, and influenced design, poetry, literature, visual arts and music.

“Less is more” is, however, more than just an aesthetic guiding principle: it is a worldview, based on various, occasionally contradictory ethical principles.

“Japanese culture provided further inspiration for “less is more”

The fathers of modernism, for example, always emphasised logical and sensible planning and rejected ornamentation and excessive decoration as decadent. The motto also contains traces of Christian religious thinking, which combines ostentation and ornamentation with sinful pride and preaches frugality.

Japanese culture provided further inspiration for “less is more”, especially Japanese Zen Buddhism.

This focuses on impermanence, constant change and the absence of the self, often referred to as the “emptiness of things”.

The aesthetic manifestation of these concepts can be found in the gardens of the Zen temples: They are simply designed, pure and literally “empty” to give visitors more space to meditate. In many Israeli kibbutzes, the “people's house” was built in architectural implementation of Marxist ideology, straightforward and, especially from the 1950s onwards, in brutalist exposed concrete, without flourishes or decorative elements.

The architectural style of Israeli kibbutzim, which is based on Marxist ideology, and Japanese Zen Buddhism are fundamentally different ways of thinking that have produced very different aesthetic values: Between the brutalist concrete masses of kibbutz buildings and the delicacy of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic, which represents the Buddhist notion of impermanence, there is not much outward commonality.

“This trend towards minimalism was by no means limited to buildings”

And yet both are based on the assumption that it is precisely the renunciation of decorative elements that promotes ethical and aesthetic quality.

This trend towards minimalism was by no means limited to buildings. In prose, minimalism frowned upon an excess of imagery and metaphor and urged writers to present reality bluntly, without unnecessary embellishment. Much ado aroused suspicion of a lack of authenticity, while simple words and a reduced style pointed to talent and effort.

Thus, one of Mark Twain's most famous quotes is: “I had no time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Probably the best-known example of this lyrical abbreviation is the Japanese haiku. In just 17 syllables, the poet is supposed to capture an entire world, or at least a fleeting moment. Take this work of art by Matsuo Bashô, born in 1644:

       Even  in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo's cry—
       I long for Kyoto.

Bashô's words describe the longing for something one could not have for a long time. For a place or a person you hope to see again, only to realise that even in their presence you long for what once was and no longer is. All this is contained in Bashô's lines, which are able to say so much more with so little.

But is lyrical limitation necessarily aesthetically superior to opulent rhyme? The 17 minimalist syllables of the haiku could be contrasted with the magnificent structure of the sonnets: 14 rhymed lines, a wealth of imagery and decoration. For example, Shakespeare's sonnet number five, which - like Bashô - deals with transience:

Those hours that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there,
Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
8Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness everywhere.
Then, were not summer’s distillation left
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
12Nor it nor no remembrance what it was.
 But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,
 Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

The Japanese and English poets are as far apart as the rock garden of the Ryôan-ji temple in Kyoto and St Paul's Cathedral in London. But taste, as we know, is a matter of debate, and so some have always regarded Shakespeare's sonnets as the pinnacle of human poetry, while others to this day dismiss them as overly contrived and stifling.

“Which do people prefer to look at: the Palace of Versailles or the Weissenhof Estate?”

Still others see in the Zen poems - and in minimalist poetry in general - a sterile mannerism that conceals a lack of skill. This aesthetic debate can be extended from poetry to other fields: Which painting is more gripping, the “Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black” by Piet Mondrian – interestingly, it was recently revealed that another abstract painting of his was exhibited upside down for 75 years - or the “Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio?

Which do people prefer to look at: the Palace of Versailles or the Weissenhof Estate?

The fact that the aesthetics of limitation is received with enthusiasm today is based, among other things, on a philosophical way of thinking that equates the “beautiful” with the “good”, i.e. the morally imperative.

“What about that beauty which now lies hidden precisely in evil and darkness?”

As early as the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas associated beauty with moral integrity. In numerous fairy tales and legends, physical beauty is equated with a virtuous character.

If we assume that aesthetic beauty is the sensual embodiment of the true and the good, it follows, after all, that the ethical imperative to restrict consumption must also express itself in the aesthetic values of restriction. But what about that beauty that is now hidden precisely in evil and darkness, the beauty that reveals itself to us in desire, pride, unbridled passion?

Thus, the book “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“The Flowers of Evil”) by Charles Baudelaire describes the dark erotic or disgusting life in Paris in a wealth of images and metaphors. Already in the preface he warns in the introductory poem “To the Reader”, of a far more powerful enemy than all social evils and all kinds of venereal diseases: boredom.

The representative of "Less is more", Mies van der Rohe, experienced similar criticism from conflicting directions over the years. One of these was expressed in the bon mot “Less is a bore”, coined by the architect Robert Venturi. Venturi criticised the monotonous modernist tyranny and called for a postmodern revolution in architecture.

“Restriction does not necessarily refer to modesty”

Alongside this, socially grounded critics claim that minimalism, which had emerged on a socialist basis in Europe and initially wanted to offer a real solution to the housing shortage in the industrial age, had degenerated over time into expensive and barely feasible luxury projects.

In fact, Mies van der Rohe did start planning workers' housing estates in Europe, but after moving to the United States he preferred to design minimalist holiday homes for the rich and skyscrapers for large corporations.

Limitation does not necessarily refer to modesty. Sometimes it is precisely a matter of proudly standing out from the “vulgar” and the “masses”, from those “masses of the people” from which the person who thinks himself something better would prefer to stand apart, among other things through a refined minimalist architectural style.

For similar considerations, some Jewish thinkers criticised any kind of renunciation: they recognised in it arrogance disguised as modesty.

While important currents in Christianity valued abstinence - from marriage and family, from wine and meat - as a sign of love for God, the Jerusalem Talmud says: “Man will one day have to give an account of what his eye beheld but he did not consume.”

As a reader, I admire the spare prose of Raymond Carver, who is able to create meaning precisely by daring to leave gaps. But no less do I enjoy writers like Stefan Zweig who, with generous use of baroque, sprawling metaphors, put into words feelings of tenderness that are difficult to describe.

As a writer, I sit at my desk, a page just written in front of me, and ask myself the same question as Mies van der Rohe and co: more or less?