Current Views in Architectural Theory

Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005


___Frank R. Werner
  The 'New Simplicity' A Problem of Representation in Architecture and Town-Planning?
Some Remarks on ‘Simplicity’ in Architectural Theory



"It makes no sense inventing something unless it is going to be an improvement." (Adolf Loos)

To 'build simply', one might suppose, is the easiest thing in the world. But the history of architecture and design tells us a different story. The simple artefact can be anything from lofty to trivial, moralistic to destructive, rigorous and reduced to formless. Conversely however, the complex artefact may be either attention-grabbing or lofty, informative or moralistic, meaning-laden or reduced and rigorous. The dilemma is evident. To build simply, to design simply is, both in theory and practice, an extremely complex undertaking.

This can be seen most clearly in discussions focusing on the role of the so-called 'new simplicity’ in the context of architectonic representation, which many
critics see as currently undergoing a crisis of both form and quality. Thus the architectural semiotician Claus Dreyer recently wrote:

"A cursory examination of some spectacular architectural works of recent years results in a finding that would be easy to supplement and support on the basis of further examples: the crisis of representation is evident. There is no common ’language’ in architecture through which common experience, ideas, hopes, values, traditions and conventions could be expressed, just as there is no common ground in society for these issues. There are only a few outstanding individuals with a great artistic potential and almost God-like reputation who have the opportunity to articulate their
'private language’ by unique means, and to present it to the public. The work of translating and interpreting this 'language’ for the general public takes place mainly in the professional and popular media, where it occasionally comes dangerously close to product advertising. Under these conditions, the communicative correspondence between employer, architect, user, observer, and society as a whole amounts to little more than a coincidence or a stroke of luck. In a complex, multi-cultural, compartmentalized, and media-oriented society, this state of affairs seems impossible to circumvent: everyone must and can seek the representational context in architecture that suits him and is limited only by lack of information or financial means.
At any rate, this freedom of choice must be understood as an achievement and an opportunity. Never before in history so many different forms of architectural representation have been in competition. The monotony of classic international modernism is a thing of the past. Today interested people can put together their own (even potentially virtual)
'universe of architectural discourse’. At the same time, there is a possibility for the emergence of a new architectonic paradigm that may develop from the close proximity of the different 'languages’. It could represent a world culture growing closer, without losing the regional varieties and 'dialects’

Simple building as a dialect of architectonic representation? It would be easy to agree if the topos of simplicity had not been so repeatedly instrumentalized in its recent history.

Under German National Socialism, simplicity developed into a theoretical and practical program of architecture marked by a double standard from which – at least in Germany – it still suffers today. Sailing under the xenophobic flag of the conservative Heimatschutz -movement  (literally 'home protection’-movement), and drawing on the folksy, retrogressive 'cultural works’ of Paul Schultze-Naumburg for example, the exponents of the 'blood and soil’ ideology promoted ultra-simple, regionally rooted architectural stereotypes that inevitably ended in a sort of synthetic regionalism. The vision was of a uniform single-family house throughout the entire Reich from Peenemünde to the Obersalzberg – though in reality family house design was criminally neglected by the Nazis in favour of the great buildings for the state. Goethe’s summer-house in Weimar was prescribed as a sort of archetypical ur-matrix for party architects, as it was for all the potential builders and developers of the 'Thousand Year Reich’. This attitude gave birth to innumerable family homes and building developments, for example the notorious Kochenhofsiedlung built 1933 in Stuttgart as a model housing development, a compact realization of synthetic, regionally accented simplicity imbued with the National Socialist urban vision. It was intended as a conterblast to the nearby Weißenhofsiedlung, and destined to enter architectural history under that disreputable banner. From this point in time at the very latest, any conception of a simple architecture based in 'local native tradition’ seemed, at least in Germany, to be contaminated with associations of folksy retrogressive nationalism and hostility to any form of innovation.

However, this instrumentalization of simple building and shaping should not mislead us into thinking that simplicity of form is ipso facto reactionary. A glance at the history of architecture shows that every age had its 'new simplicity', although the reasons for this were always different. Thus in 1788 an anonymous author published one of the most important treatises of late baroque classicism, entitling it Inquiries into the Character of Buildings; on the Relation between Architecture and the Fine Arts and on the Effects that These Should Produce.
[2] Like a golden thread the epithet 'simple' runs through this enlightened tract, which concentrates entirely on the effect of buildings on people. Simplicity, the author enjoins, should be the keynote of plan, silhouette, interior, furnishings, decor and choice of materials, and the details that constitute this simplicity should be executed with the greatest care. – The simple making of simple objects has indeed always been a concern of men and women, albeit in different social contexts and subject to varying connotations and readings. It is almost with melancholy that one thinks of cultures such as Japan, where the 'simple house' – and still more so its sensually ascetic interior appointments – has for centuries been conceived as a 'man-made philosophical continuum', a 'thought-construct' whose world-view transcends time and space in the sureness of its forms and its unquestioned sense of obligation.[3]

Topical interest, both national and international, in 'simple' building and design focuses less, however, on history than it does on problems of ecological economy, and here it is the example of young international architecture – including a number of Austrian, German and Swiss practitioners – that is now setting the pace. And setting it in a direction that contrasts markedly, one must say, with the navel-gazing architectural banalities of the new Berlin or the no less irrelevant debate on architectonics that has turned that city into a minor battlefield.

Kenneth Frampton has taken a very clear stance on these matters. He believes one can find "in the tradition of new building" architects who 'build simply', [...] following the distinction made by Max Bill between concrete architecture and concrete art".
[4] This reminds one of Adolf Loos's remark: "The house is conservative, the work of art revolutionary. That is why people love houses and hate art". Both statements – Frampton's as well as Loos's – indicate an awareness of the divide between the object made for use and the object made for art, between the pragmatic and the transformed. Both accept the functional and reject the artistic. And it is this awareness that informs the work of architects like Guyer and Gigon, Diener and Zumthor. Frampton also counts Steven Holl among this group, for he opposes "the fetish of making materials and details into an end in themselves [...] especially when this is divorced from content or context" – a judgement Holl himself corroborates when he writes: “for me, material is just a tool to express concept. If there’s no concept, then the result is uninteresting... Material is the flesh giving form and space to the concept. The danger in this whole discussion is that the material could become and end in itself. That would be rather pathetic".[5]

If, however, one looks more closely at Zumthor's thermal baths in Vals for example – a building that has been called both "archaic" and "atavistic" – the danger of such clear distinctions soon becomes evident. For Zumthor's approach in this building is neither programatically 'simple' (in the sense of functional) nor conceptually 'economical', let alone ecological. What it represents is the sculpturally transcendent product of a sensualist aesthetic.

A second group of 'simple builders', harshly cricized by Frampton, comprises architects who "appear to have succumbed to the hallucinatory effects of the media". He is thinking of design teams like Herzog and De Meuron or Sumi and Burkhalter. This criterion also seems to me highly questionable, as I hope to show later. A third group, among whom he includes John Pawson, is that of the protagonists of "zero degree architecture", as he calls it, though he means the term positively enough. This minimalist approach to building responds, in his opinion, to the "escalating cacophony of the modern world with a palpable stillness - a beinahe nichts - in which the grain of a single material is the only allowable figure". To avoid misunderstandings it must be added that architects like Pawson and Chipperfield, or kindred designers, have nothing whatever in common with reactionary social attitudes.

Have we not for years now, not to say decades, been experiencing a de facto renaissance of objects-as-archetypes – clever, even sophisticated archetypes based on Aldo Rossi's, Robert Venturi's or Christopher Alexander's concept of the simple underlying forms of all design? What is genuinely new on the other hand is the approach to the concept of materiality and its appropriate expression. For modern composite and bonded materials simply have too many qualities to be expressed simultaneously in any artefact. No underlying form can penetrate all these strata, and materiality breaks away as a result (as in many timber or concrete buildings), taking on independent existence and value and becoming itself a guarantor of "presence" and immediacy.
[6] Martin Steinmann comments: "Things show their presence, inscribed in their materiality. Conversely, materiality itself shows its presence."[7] Hans Frei sees in this

the disjunction beween inner and outer, revamped in terms of the indifference of material to form and form to construction. Spatial construction, it follows, can be left to the general contractor. At the very least it becomes a subordinate issue, far removed from the complexity of surface proper to the facade. It is this complexity, now, that constitutes the real mystery of architectonic creativity.”

Minimalist architecture draws its inspiration here from high-tech materials; arte povera architecture and arte povera design from the theories of Joseph Beuys, according to which "poor materials" have to be enhanced and charged with mental energy. The question in both cases is no longer what role a particular material is intended to play within a construction but what optical effect it can achieve. The new motto, according to Christian Sumi, is therefore to "forget about the material, look at its effect". Like certain designers, he says:

We must look for the magic of our materials beyond the limits of semantic definition. For us the materials with which we work are magic in themselves and our task is to differentiate between and exploit their sensual qualities. The concept of aura is over-used, but it is important here. If we are hesitant to elaborate on the subject, it is out of carefulness and respect.”

Catalogues of building materials and ready-made products seem the immediate source of inspiration for this type of 'simple building', which frequently resorts to ready-made industrial or craft products for its facades: industrial glass for a museum extension in Winterthur (Gigon & Guyer), traditional wooden shingles for a chapel in Sumvigt-bei-Disentis (Zumthor), cast iron manhole-covers for a residential and commercial block in the centre of Basle (Herzog & De Meuron). And not infrequently these ready-made products are transformed very simply, even archaically, into something quite new in appearance. "In this way Herzog & De Meuron transform the image of a transformer coil into a signal box at the main railway station in
Basle and a pile of wood in a timber-yard into the layered facade of the first Ricola factory". The object seems to be to create architecture by metamorphosis out of the banal images of everyday. Or a small six-storey office comes into being in the area behind the central station in Basle, a quality product from the renowned design team of Diener & Diener "crazily enough not decked out with the usual self-referential features of architecture as architecture", as  Klaus-Jürgen Bauer remarks.[10] The iron oxide that has formed on the concrete facade creates what Martin Steinmann calls "an impression of poverty appropriate to the streets behind the station where the rust from passing trains alters every facade". A modest building plays consciously with banality, which seems to constitute a central aspect of its claim to quality. Up to now, however, it has not been customary to use the term banal in a positive sense of architecture or design products. The emphatic poverty of the facade stands, it must be added, in conscious contrast to elegant details, like the bronze frames around the windows of this Basle building. For, as Steinmann notes, "a building must hold meanings in balance and suspense".[11]

How does 'simple building' approach the question of total form and its expression? Two different tracks are evident. One sets out to create a "strong form" – and here the visible construction is not identical with the actual construction. This latter is wrapped and condensed in a form determined not by constructional principles but by "criteria drawn from the psychology of perception." The focus is on mass and tectonics, sometimes overemphasized, sometimes questioned. Architects and designers approach the issue of form "by encapsulating the real construction in order to dramatize the visible construction".
[12] It is a trend recognizable from the time of Mies van der Rohe's celebrated buttress for the Pavilion of the German Reich at the Barcelona World Fair of 1928-29, later developed for the Haus Tugendhat in Brünn (1930), or again from his world-famous "corner-solution" for Alumni Memorial Hall (1945-46) on the I.I.T. site in Chicago.

The second variant is what Hans Frei calls the creation of a "specific form" intrinsically linking function and surface. The facade sets out in this case to reflect the specifics of the brief; "materials serve as repositories of meaning", as they can readily be seen to do in the copper-laminated signal-box of the Wolf goods-yard in Basle. As if the copper wrapping were a sort of armour protecting the electronic control systems inside the building from the electromagnetic smog outside. Herzog & De Meuron have, according to Frei, succeeded in "translating the mental energy of the 'Feuerstelle' installation which, as Beuys' assistants, they created for the
Basle Museum of Contemporary Art, into the electronic age".

In both these cases the principle of simplicity consists in structuring the facade to be "as viewer-friendly an interface as possible, both expressively powerful and readily understood". The outer skin of a building becomes in this way a "locus of resistance against pure fiction, a negociating-place for the truth of vision."
[13] Against this – or complementing it – stands the clear influence of an aesthetics of economy whose aim is to establish the constructive unity of interior and exterior, the economic interdependence of structure and form and ecological adaptation to the (local) status quo. Thus in certain areas of Europe wooden buildings, rigorous in line and "clean" in structure, have assumed the status of a "journeyman's entrée into the regional architectural scene". They demonstrate the rejection of all that is modern and exalted on the one hand or imported and alien on the other. Their vision is directed to what, though banal and everyday, is nevertheless functional and effective, and this vision has brought with it a new and subversive invigoration of the simple, traditional purpose-designed building. A very practical side of this is that such buildings have always been cheaper and more environmentally friendly than any of the unloved modern implants. "Out of need an ethical principle has developed"[14] which architects in certain regions (notably the Swiss cantons of Vorarlberg and Tessin) have been able to incorporate almost seamlessly into a striking program of "new old-simplicity".

If these various, heterogeneous strategies for 'building simply' finally meet, it is at the level of perception. Martin Tschanz is right when he sees precisely in "these buildings that appear so simple, even bleak at first [...] a deeper, sensual multiplicity of meaning" – often a greater multiplicity than postmodern architecture was able to achieve. The result, not infrequently, is "effects of impressive beauty that can be enjoyed without any previous knowledge".
[15] Despite our enjoyment of these effects, however, it cannot be a matter of indifference whether this architecture aspires to a "minima aesthetica", to "banality as subversive strategy", or whether its practitioners have consciously embarked on a program of "added meaning", rejecting the idea of transforming the physical artefact into an autonomous aesthetic object (a project in which classical modernity also failed) in favour of placing simple constructs in a precisely shaped cultural and political frame.

The question whether the 'new simplicity' has affected contemporary urban planning – and if so how and where – cannot easily be answered. So many conflicting claims can be made – city centres versus suburbs, national strategies versus global, places versus non-places, reconstruction versus deconstruction – that no definitive statement is possible. Nevertheless, on the basis of what I have been saying here, four different modes of influence can be at least concretely described:

1.      The autistic individual building – viz. the building that stands in an urban context and makes a significant statement but is unable or unwilling to enter into any sort of dialogue with its context or the men and women who use it.

2.      The "dead city" (after a metaphor of Ernst Jünger's and Jean Baudrillard's). If simplicity in an urban context allows itself to be instrumentalized by monolithic energies – either by untrammelled capital and power or by the idée fixe of urban totality to be realized by main force (cf. Hausmann's Paris or Stimman's Berlin) – then the sum of simplicities (in themselves acceptable) will inevitably add up to blank domesticity, petrification and the exclusion of anything approaching presence.

3.      The city as the normal case. Simplicity can achieve great things in an urban context when it sees itself calmly and modestly as a complement to the urban whole and its users, a regenerative ingredient within the spaces of the contemporary city, furthering and fulfilling thought and emancipation.

4.      The unbroken power of the line. Building in lines, suburban terraces, residential rows, seems to me, despite the objection that it is merely a reanimated relic of classical modernism, perhaps the most fruitful statement of simple building currently available. It is open to amelioration and refinement both at the ecological and constructional levels as well as to quantum leaps of improvement in the design of  interior living space. Where this happens it continues to represent almost the only building project able to halt the breakdown of settlement patterns and even create compelling local frameworks for global players as well as supporting the generation of new forms of suburban socialization.

At a time when our scale of values was still determined by the church and the monarchy, and later by local government and banks, it was a case of erecting buildings which proclaimed a message of power. Now that we are being influenced simultaneously by many different factors, the time for any kind of rhetoric in individual buildings is past.”

No one today will subscribe to this statement of Alison and Peter Smithson's from the 70s. Even the simplest present-day architecture is anything but speechless. But the best examples of simple building and design speak a language that cannot be thrust into the corner occupied by restorers and academic adepts of an eternal yesterday. They are neither mirrors of banality nor models of reactionary social philosophy. "The simple", to speak with Hans Frei, "is a formula for processes that incorporate as much as they can" – of presence to and in the present, he means. What the simple entirely excludes is any sort of 'ism', of new fashion. For this would, for better or worse, be the end of simple building and simple design, the end of a final optimistic option in whatever remains to us of design culture.

To build simply, to design simply, one might suppose, is the easiest thing in the world. In reality it is the most arduous, the most time-consuming and last but not least the worst paid of any task that one can nowadays assume. For that reason we should cultivate it, intellectually as well as in practice, rather than deliver it up to the empty phrases of populist argument.


[1] Claus Dreyer, The crisis of representation in contemporary architecture, in: Semiotica, No 143 / 1-4, 2003, p.180.

[2] Untersuchungen über den Charakter der Gebäude, Faksimile-Neudruck der Ausgabe Leipzig 1788 mit einer Einführung von Hanno-Walter Kruft, Nördlingen 1986.

[3] For this see: Tetsuro Yoshida, Das japanische Wohnhaus, Tübingen 1954.

[4] Kenneth Frampton, In (de) Nature of Materials: A Note on the State of Things, in: Daidalos No. 65, Magic Of Materials II, Berlin 1995, p. 12.

[5] Steven Holl, loc.cit., p. 16.

[6] Hans Frei, Neuerdings Einfachheit, in: Bundesamt für Kultur (ed.), minimal tradition, Max Bill und die “einfache” Architektur 1942-1996, Baden 1996, p. 122.

[7] Martin Steinmann, Form und Ausdruck, in: Mathias Ackermann (ed.), Morger & Degelo Basel, Kommunales Wohnhaus 1993, Basel 1994, p. 8.

[8] Hans Frei, Neuerdings Einfachheit, see note 6, p. 122.

[9] Christian Sumi, Positive Indifference, in: Daidalos No. 56, Magic of Materials II, Berlin 1995, p. 26 ff.

[10] Klaus-Jürgen Bauer, Minima Aesthetica, Banalität als subversive Strategie der Architektur, Weimar 1997, p. 32.

[11] Martin Steinmann, neue Architektur in der Schweiz, in: Magistrat Linz (ed.), Bauart, Linz 1990, p. 82.

[12] Hans Frei, Neuerdings Einfachheit, see note 6, p. 123.

[13] Hans Frei, loc. cit., p. 126.

[14] Klaus-Jürgen Bauer, Minima Aesthetica, see note 10, p. 28.

[15] Martin Tschanz, Gentle Perversions, in: Daidalos No. 56, Magic Of Materials I, Berlin 1995, p. 88 ff.

[16] Alison and Peter Smithson, Without Rhetoric, An Architectural Aesthetic, London 1973, p. 12.



Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005