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Minimalist Architecture: History & Characteristics

Instructor: Ela Poursani

Ela has taught college Architecture, Interior Design, and Culinary Design and has a doctorate degree in architecture.

Minimalism is a popular art movement and design style since the 1960s. In this lesson, the history and characteristics of minimalism in architecture is explained, briefly.

Minimalist Architecture

Eating less food is called a diet. When you're on diet, you restrict yourself to small amounts of food for medical reasons or to lose or maintain weight. When architecture is on diet, it is called minimalism. Minimalist architecture is restricted to fewer elements to achieve the most. Here, 'the most' is as important as health.

Architects like Tadao Ando, John Pawson, and Alberto Baeza chose to become minimalists to reach the essence of architecture. Minimalist architects value simplicity, formal cleanliness, and empty space. They eliminate everything that does not work with the program, and use the fewest and barest elements to maximum effect. But, how did they come up with those ideas?

Minimalist House
Minimalist House

History of Minimalist Architecture

Minimalism is an art/design movement that started in the 20th century. Minimalism, is a concept not only in architecture, but also other art and design fields. Today, minimalism is also popular as a lifestyle.

Minimal Art

Minimal art emerged in the early 1960s in America and introduced a new way of producing, looking at, and experiencing artworks. Artists like Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd were inspired by Cubism and its concept of reducing everything in an artwork to geometric shapes. These artists created minimalist works with a focus on the most essential elements, pure shapes, monochromatic surfaces, repetition, clarity, and simplicity of form. They eliminated referential and narrative subjects.

Minimal in Architecture

The origins of minimalist architecture go back to Cubism-derived design movements De Stijl and Bauhaus that ran parallel in the 1920s. In a way, these movements offered different diets to architecture with similar food selections.

For instance, De Stijl movement endorsed simplicity and abstraction and reduced an artwork to its essential form/color. De Stijl principles were applied to architecture by Theo Van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld. They based their design philosophy on functionalism, rectilinearity of planes, and elimination of surface decoration as exemplified in Rietveld's Schroder House.

Schroder House, Gerrit Rietveld
Schroder House by Gerrit Rietveld

Bauhaus, on the other hand, was founded as an art school in Germany with the goals of promoting mass production and uniting arts and crafts with technology. Bauhaus had close ties to De Stijl and shared its principles in functionalism, cleanliness, purity, and reduction of form.

In 1947, after the Bauhaus was relocated in the United States and known as the International Style, its famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe summarized its minimalist philosophy in a trademark phrase: 'Less is more'. Less-is-more refers to reduction of form to the bare minimum of elements and it is still used to define minimalism, today.

Farnsworth House, Mies
Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe

In addition to the Bauhaus and De Stijl, minimalist architecture was influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. Appreciating simple and plain objects, the traditional Japanese design has always revolved around the idea of minimal and focused on adding only what is needed and removing the rest.

Characteristics of Minimalist Architecture

Minimalist architecture demonstrates certain characteristics of form, light, space, and material along with techniques such as reduction, simplification, and unification. Minimalists consider these characteristics as the 'essence' of architecture.

Reduction to Essentials

Minimalist architecture uses the fewest and barest essentials to reach the essence of architecture. This means reducing and condensing a design's content to a minimum of necessary elements, number of parameters, and operating means that define form. Thus, minimalist architecture is a result of elimination of the inessentials where the design is stripped down to its most fundamental features and can no longer be improved by subtraction.

Simplicity-Bareness-Cleanliness

The notion of lessening and reducing elements to its utmost simplicity makes minimalist architecture. Extreme simplicity of form/volume and bareness, plainness, and cleanliness of design vocabulary are the major characteristics of minimalism.

Minimalist design vocabulary emphasizes employing geometry and using basic shapes, flat surfaces, simple forms, neat and straight components, minimal interior partitions, and smooth and clean finishes to create minimal buildings, like Alvaro Siza's school.

School of Architecture, Alvaro Siza
Architecture School by Alvaro Siza

Space, Place, Emptiness

Minimalism gives maximum power to architectural space. Basically, it is a function of space. Space in minimalism is regarded as unlimited/infinite space. Thus, open-plan spatial arrangements are used to create minimalist architecture.

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