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Monday, January 12, 2015

Minimalist Architecture

Minimalism which breaks with the rectilinear mold of most such examples.
Gama Issa House, Sao Paulo, Brazil. No, the
deck does not fold up like a giant breadbox.
Several months ago I did a lengthy series dealing with all the various styles of domestic architecture (houses, not public buildings), their hallmarks, history, geography, assets, and liabilities. I thought I had them pretty well covered until recently when I noticed I'd dealt with the "modern", sometimes called "contemporary" style too broadly. In so doing I gave short shrift to a style often lumped in with them but that really demands a separate architectural treatment--minimalism. Normally, I'm no great fan of Minimalism as applied to painting and sculpture. For the most part, it's empty, oversimplified, and cold. Yet, I find it important to deal with historically in that it was the equivalent of the curtain-call for Modern Art--the last gasp before the onset of the Postmodern era.
The front of the house above

A simple statement, open, and practical.
However, with an acute sense of irony, I tend to admire Minimalist architecture, especially as it's applied to home design. In looking at some of the best examples of Minimalist homes, one gets the impression of having glimpsed the future of architecture possibly several hundred years from now. The fact is, Minimalism in it's earliest, seminal development, is nearly a hundred years old. Malevich's painting Black Square dates from 1915, his White on White from 1918. Of course two groundbreaking paintings do not an architectural movement make; but they can be said to have planted the seeds from which the German Bauhaus emerged and from that, the earliest vestiges of Minimalist Architecture. In 1924, came the Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House, Utrecht, Netherlands, Although the Schroder House was more Mondrian than Minimalist, it was a major step in that direction.
The Savoy House, 1929-31, Poissy, France, Le Corbusier
Minimalism soaring to new heights.
The first truly Minimalist house came just five years later as the French architect, Le Corbusier designed and built the Savoy House (above) in Poissy (outskirts of Paris) during the years 1929-31. His radical masterpiece contains all the architectural hallmarks of Minimalist architecture. We see the use of reinforced concrete painted white, high contrast areas of negative space, an emphasis on the horizontal, groupings of glass and other materials into unified design elements in place of decoration, a flat roof, and a conscious accommodation for the automobile, all in an attempt to harmonize with the environment (or in this case, shape an environment in harmony with the house). As a first attempt in doing all this, it's a remarkable achievement, not always completely successful in all these areas, but laying the groundwork, inventing the rules as it were, for generations of Minimalist architects to strive for in the future.
The SRR House, Valencia, Spain, late 1940s, Silvestre Navarro Architects.
(The entrance is at the far right.)
Minimalism need not be massive and showy.
Minimalism denotes simplicity. However simplicity, especially as applied to architecture, is never simple. Architecture houses people's lives, and as those lives become more and more complex, the natural inclination for architects and their clients is to build ever more convoluted edifices to accommodate such complexity. Thus, Minimalism runs counter to most modern lifestyles. As George Carlin once proclaimed, "Home is where you keep your stuff." And as modern man keeps inventing and collecting more and more "stuff" the simplicity of design that marks Minimalism becomes more and more difficult to achieve.

Minimalist Floor plan for SRR House (above).
Not all Minimalism rejects the vertical.
Quite apart from the skills and aesthetics of the Minimalist architect, it takes a special kind of person (or family) to successfully adapt to a Minimalist home. Quite often such houses, are conceived as a direct reaction against the complexity and clutter of the "lived-in" look which people have gradually come to find uncomfortable. It's as if their "stuff" has taken on a life of its own, trying to crowd them out of their home. Moreover, acclimating to a Minimalist home is not just a matter of jettisoning the unnecessary, but taking on a whole new attitude, the classic "less is more." Anything not in harmony with this new mindset is cast off, replaced, or stored away out of sight. A minimalist house demands minimalist furniture and especially a minimalist décor. That's not to say decorative touches are verboten or that color is limited to white and hardwood floors. It simply means both color and decoration must be chosen with extreme care and taste so as to whisper warmth rather than cry "FIRE!"
A Minimalist interior. Patterns are minimized and consistent. contrasts are subtle,
storage is organized and spacious.  Noticed the mirrored door on the left.
Compact kitchen Minimalism.
One of the blessings of a minimalist home is that it is capable of meeting its occupants half-way. If minimalism demands a certain degree of lifestyle restraint and flexibility in order to maintain its purity, the house itself is supremely open to adaptation as well. Space is unlabeled and indistinct. Walls are few and when present, highly functional (as in providing privacy). Lighting is profuse when needed, comforting and subtle on demand. Windows are enormous when the local environment is inviting, non-existent when less so, or when privacy is an issue. Natural material textures break up monotony and soothe the eye, but like color, furnishings, and décor, must be used judiciously so as to compliment, not dominate other architectural elements. Likewise, water, whether flowing or still, often provides a much-needed WOW factor while also adding a source of soothing pleasure, relaxation, or recreation.
Minimalism is not always white on white accented with white.
Here the mirror-glass windows reflect the forest environment, minimizing the intrusion

The kitchen wing of the house above.
Minimalism demands the services of an architect. Few other styles are as reliant upon the careful planning of physical and visual space. Spacious living areas are a must but equally important is what might even be termed excessive storage space to keep the unsightly out of sight. With no other architectural style or lifestyle is it more important that there be "a place for everything and everything in its place." Careless housekeeping becomes extremely conspicuous in a Minimalist home. The same is true of exterior maintenance and repair, especially where roofs are concerned. As you may have noticed, flat, or barely sloping rooflines are the rule, and as a rule, such roofs tend to leak. They're most appropriate in places where the sky seldom does.

Sometimes, Minimalist houses hardly look like houses at all.
Oriental Minimalism by
Singapore architects Ong & Ong.
I'm not sure why, but American's are not all that fond of Minimalist architecture. The Japanese love it. There's quite a bit of it in Spain. Many German, French, and Italian architects have made important contributions to the style. Maybe it's the old American desire for more, more, more which flies in the face of Minimalism's demand, for less, less, less. American's have a tendency to collect stuff, and worse, a desire to proudly show it off, museum style, in their homes. Our American culture is relatively young, festooned with dozens upon dozens of architectural styles and decorating variations. Most are imported from around the world, but from Europe especially. Few of these influences lend themselves to Minimalism. Minimalism is blatantly non-traditional, requiring the occupants of a Minimalist domestic environment to make choices between that which is necessary and important in their lives and the "not so much." For Americans, "all of the above," is much easier than picking and choosing the minimum that is vital.

Even young children can adapt to the Minimalist mindset, given a little time and patience.

What an interesting tree...

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