Its Used in everything from music to culinary art to high fashion, the minimalist phenomenon has taken on a life of its own. But what is behind this trend?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos, in his pamphlet against ornament, already embodies a ‘minimalist’ position, maintaining that the realities and conditions of production of his time are no longer conducive to abundance, but rather to a return to efficiency and rationality of construction. The current can thus be understood as a way of conceiving and realizing in the concern of the purity and the economy of means. Moreover, minimalism in architecture has some features in common with religious constructions: John Pawson as well as Alvaro Siza, architects practicing a form of minimalism, were deeply influenced by the Abbey of Thoronnet built between the XII and XIII centuries by and for Cistercian monks (on this subject, we advise you to read the Pierres Sauvages by Fernand Pouillon).
But it is Mies van der Rohe who formulated the first slogan of architectural minimalism: the famous “Less is more”, always quoted nowadays. However, the Viennese architect was preceded by Louis Sullivan, an American who, as early as 1896, embodied a desire to return to constructive truth, to the agreement between function and form. This shows how moral values can be attached to architecture.
A search for truth, the will to hide nothing, an ethical approach underlies the minimalist practice. The ideal of the matter in agreement with a simple and harmonious form also makes reference to the Roman ruins, as “eternal” ideals: certain artists of the minimalist current which emerges in the Sixties claim explicitly of it. This movement signed the return in the world of Art to principles of simplicity and essentiality, which are reflected in the work of artists such as Frank Stella, Donald Judd or Carl André, recently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, to name only the best known.
But let’s now move on to the six projects we’ve selected to illustrate this movement… Which, without a shadow of a doubt, will continue to seduce aficionados for several more years!
John Pawson’s house
Here we have the house of the man who can be considered THE master of minimalism, John Pawson. This second house is in fact a traditional London building completely redone from the inside. The photographs speak for themselves: white architecture, a color that symbolizes purity in our Western society, and stripped down. No paintings on the walls, no carpets on the floor, no dust bunnies for that matter. It’s almost suspicious. It’s square, it’s clear, it’s simple, nothing sticks out except the stems and branches of a few succulents on the terrace and at the back of the small courtyard. One can imagine the sigh of relief once the door closes behind you, leaving the frenzy of the British megalopolis for the calm and peace of this home of rare elegance.
Silvestrin & Pawson – Neuendorf Villa
We are here in Majorca, in 1991. That alone makes you want to go there, because it was better before anyway, and we still don’t know anything better than the sun to be in a good mood. The villa now. It is a complex of 600 square meters with swimming pool and tennis court, and gardens, it goes without saying. To get to the house, you have to drive 110 meters along a straight path paved with smooth white stone. It is the necessary passage to be able to penetrate inside this marvel whose colors of the coatings recall the reddish and sunburned landscape in which it is registered. The use of local materials is noteworthy, especially the beautifully maintained dry stone walls and traditional ceramic tiles.
Valerio Olgiati – Laax House
This is a surprising house, located in Laax, a Swiss village in the canton of Grisons, a mountainous region par excellence. Due to the configuration of the plot and the regulations for new constructions, the house was literally divided into two parts, connected by a 90 meter long underground corridor that became the backbone of the project and the family’s living space. Here, everything exudes calm and restraint – typically Swiss, you might say. The white concrete tinted in the mass of the walls, the floor in shades of gray and the zenithal openings invite to contemplation and meditation. I leave you to judge for yourself, and can only invite you to consult the plans and sections of this project that reinvents the domestic space and the myth of the primitive habitat.
Alberto Campo Baeza – Casa Guerrero
“This house is the construction of a luminous shadow”.
These are the words of Alberto Campo Baeza to talk about this project. In a village in the south of Spain, bitten by the sun, Casa Guerrero reinterprets a building tradition from North African countries: the hortus conclusus, the enclosed space, separated from the landscape and the outside by a thick wall with few holes. In this project, everything is turned towards the sky, while being made to protect itself from the stifling heat. We are in Andalusia, the walls could only be white, of chalk, of this whiteness which blinds in summer. For the rest, the project is of an obviousness that would make any student and many architects cry, because here simplicity is everything: the monochrome, the monomateriality, the variation of the light, the vibration of the leaves of the four trees planted in the garden. Everything is anticipated, thought out, and the implementation is so meticulous that the house seems unreal. In fact, wouldn’t we dream of living in it with nothing but a white mattress on the floor and a carafe of fresh water?
Aires Matteus – Casa em Leiria
Again the south, again the sun. Between Lisbon and Porto, in Leiria, a house with an archetypal shape: a square, a sloping roof, the house that all western children draw (yes, because the house with a gable roof is not a worldwide archetype either, ethnocentrism is fine!) Except that… First of all, it is monochrome. All in white, for a change. That again, in Portugal, it’s not too rare. Except that (again…) there are square holes in the garden. In fact, it’s called a patio.
And these patios indicate a vertical division of the house’s functions, according to the degree of privacy of the spaces and the time of day they are normally used. To put it plainly, the bedrooms and bathrooms are located on the subterranean level, while the living rooms are gathered above, overlooking the city. The silhouette of the medieval castle of Lieria is the distant counterpoint.
Hiroyuki Ito Architects – Tatsumi Housing in Tokyo
This ten-story apartment building in Tokyo is a success story that demonstrates that minimalism can be extended to non-individual housing. Completed in 2016, the building displays its raw concrete materiality perfectly executed according to Japanese rigor, and exposes its large bays as paintings meticulously placed on its four facades. Inside, in addition to the exposed concrete, the architect plays with a palette of traditional materials: wood, tatami mats, ceramics, white curtains. These elements display a relaxing chromatic harmony typical of the ‘minimalist palette’: light and bright for a relaxing interior. In addition, each level of the building has been designed to accommodate different functions and allow the place to evolve over time: 34 square meters that can be used as a studio as well as a study or a business. The last floors are organized in duplexes in order to double the surface of the apartments.
Atelier Oslo Architects – Cabin in Nordehov
Back to the North for a variation on the theme of the cabin … Proper to the minimalist exercise, since to make a cabin, we all know (or, we all knew as a child) it does not take much. Atelier Oslo has therefore designed this “cabin” on the slopes of the forests of Kroksgogen, a few meters from the shores of Lake Steinsfjorden (I promise to stop with the barbaric names). It seems to be made of wood… but it is not! The cladding is made of basalt slabs which are the traditional assembly of Norwegian wood cladding. A clever reinterpretation that surely aims to reduce the maintenance efforts that can require a wooden cladding exposed to such climatic conditions … The architects have also taken into account the various directions of the wind, which can blow hard in this region: this gives a building with a geometry biscornue that allows however to have outdoor spaces exposed differently and thus always benefit from a corner in the shade or sun. Practical if you’ve just had a blow-dry. The interior, on the other hand, is all curves and continuities between the walls and ceilings made mainly of prefabricated wood; forming alcoves and niches from which to contemplate the landscape or the fire crackling in the central stove. As always with the Scandinavians, the details are beautifully thought out and executed, from the passage between the octagonal wood and stone paving to the hidden posts of the windows and the curtain rod nestled in a vein of the ceiling.
You just have to go and see if by chance this haven of peace cabin would not be for rent on AirBnb, you never know…
The little word of the end
Beyond these beautiful projects, how do you explain the return of this trend? It is quite credible that minimalism is a reaction to the chaotic context of our time. Against the overload of work, the overabundance of information, the overconsumption, and the tyranny of speed denounced by the philosopher Paul Virilio, a minimalist interior is supposed to encourage a return to interiority, in order to bring about a certain peace. An “art of parsimony”, therefore, which is at the heart of a lifestyle – itself supposed to show, mark, even define our identity – advocated by many lifestyle magazines and other blogs. A real fashion effect that delights the crowds, as shown by the success of the book The Magic of Tidying up by Marie Kondo published last year, which, let’s underline it in passing, only popularizes Danshari, a Japanese philosophy of life whose three kanjis that form the word mean ‘refuse – throw away – separate’.
To all those who are interested in this subject and would like to go deeper into it, we recommend the reading of these two reference books: Minimal by John Pawson, and Minimalism: origins by Edward Strickland.