makes no sense inventing something unless it is going to be an improvement."
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,
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
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.
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.
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".
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".
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
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.
Martin Steinmann comments: "Things show their presence, inscribed in
their materiality. Conversely, materiality itself shows its presence."
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.
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".
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".
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
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."
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"
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".
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
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:
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.
(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.
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.
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
“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
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