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Mutual Relationships of Art and Architecture Through Minimalism

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    In Modernism the category of art-object was one of the points at which architecture and the visual arts are differentiated and articulated. The rise of so-called “minimalist” architecture with its fixation on object qualities and its borrowings from art theory suggests that this difference is collapsing. By looking at works from the late 1960s by Manfredo Tafuri, Michael Fried and Theodor adorno, we may open up some of the complexities the theory of the object in the end game of high modernism and speculate on the significance of the new taste for the look of the object.

    What is the object which results from architectural work? For most of the 20th century it would have been typical to think that this was a building and also a kind of concretisation of the process of architectural design. This latter would be true even if the project remained unbuilt or unbuildable. But both of these definitions have problems. architects do not consider all buildings as architecture, even if we think that they ought to be. and for the process of architectural design to be interchangeable with its product is a peculiar kind of narcissism.

    The work of art is to produce artworks which then have a life of their own. What would it be to have objects in the world which are “architectural” in their own right? These would be objects which would look like a piece of architecture, independently of the process that brought them about, or the old categorical conundrum of whether all buildings are, or should be architecture.

    It is precisely this possibility which i believe is raised in current architectural fashion for buildings which have the look of being objects. after decades in which architectural works were considered discursive objects, bundles of relations and references, there is now an overwhelming momentum to see buildings again as physical objects, in the sense of their architecture being a matter of formal properties of three-dimensional shape and material arranged in space.

    We might speculate as to the causes in the change in taste, but in this essay i will consider the significance of such a change and try to put it into some historical context. The significant context here is the idea of modern art. The peculiarities of the concept of the architectural object have been one of the hinges between architecture and the visual arts in modernism, one of the ways that architecture is considered an art, a part of the spectrum of modernist culture, but also different to painting and sculpture.

    In the fashion for object-like buildings, generally neo-modernist in style, i believe we are witnessing a collapse of this distinctions and a new possibility for considering the architectural object. The speca of this possibility becomes apparent in considering the use of the term “minimalism” to describe this architecture, when in the visual arts from which it was borrowed, the meaning of minimalism is quite different. Minimalism in the visual arts was an exploration of the category of the art object, and understanding this can show us that there is more than a change in taste in architects having an interest in the look of the object.

    The term Minimalism was coined, above all, as a means of describing in laudatory terms, or in a reductive and strongly critical manner, the works by protagonists of the american scene in the late Fifties and Sixties. in the field of architecture, the term Minimalism was used, at times with caution and at others with determination, to connote the works of architects from profoundly different origins and cultural backgrounds, who had based their own work on a reduction in expressive media, a rediscovery of the value of empty space and a radical elimination of everything that does not coincide with a programme, also with minimalistic design overtones, of extreme simplicity and formal cleanliness. Having initially been a reaction to the nightmare of the supermarket and excess, in its architectural form Minimalism is now finding goals that go further than the pure, simple motive of denunciation and instead move towards concrete attempts, albeit thinly scattered over time and space and in modest quantities, to introduce a life more imbued with spirituality, clarity and harmony.

    arguably, since the sixties the visual arts have acted to undo, or rotate the poles, of the opposition of the artwork and the quotidian object. Contemporary genres such as the “art of the everyday” have a comportment toward the object quite like the architecture of the high modern period. and indeed, architecture and architectural representation seems to be becoming a trope of art practice as is attested by the work of

    Ricky Swallow, Rodney Spooneer, or Callum Morton in australia and numerous overseas luminaries.
    is this a dialectic that requires that architecture, now, will produce buildings as art objects as they were before modernism? Frank Gehry’s

    Guggenheim in Bilbao points in this direction. or, will it be that the visual arts and architecture will move in tandem if not in partnership (as is suggested by Herzog and De Meuron’s work with artists such as Thomas Ruff), and in doing so collapse an opposition which has structured much of the institution of art in the last century? in either case it seems the question of the architectural object is returning to the centre of attention.

    From the architect’s viewpoint, these questions can be focused around minimalism – minimalism “then” in the visual arts of the fifties and sixties, and now in the minimalist style of present-day architecture. The minimalism of post-war american art was a kind of anti-expressionist abstraction. it was related to earlier avant-garde practices, for example, Malevich’s monochrome paintings and el Lizzitsky’s installations. Minimalist practices ignored the traditional aim of abstraction in the exploration of the formal properties of a medium or discipline and instead used provocatively mute or ambiguous objects to disquieten expectations of what the art object might be and to make an observer self-aware of the act of perceiving.

    By contrast, what is generally called minimalism in architecture is precisely that elegant abstraction to the essentials such as space and material that minimalism was attacking in art. on the issue of the relation of minimalisms in art and architecture there are two common and simplistic lines of though, and one argument that is theoretically informed. The first opinion is dismissive of minimalist architecture and those who admire it. in such an opinion minimalism in architecture is simple nostalgia for the buildings of the sixties.

    Pop music and fashion are relevant in filling out the immersive totality characterising nostalgia and Minimalist art is relevant in the same way, but to a lesser extent.
    Those who have a likening for minimalist buildings might follow a second, more portentous, theory. These claims that there are objective qualities observable in minimalist architecture which have a heritage in classical art and especially in the aesthetic trope of reduction and abstraction. Minimalist art would, in such a theory, be a phase of experimentation and rediscovery prior to the rolling out of these truths of form in broader culture.

    Modernism in architecture commenced with a critique of the architectural object in the late 19th century. an interest in vernacular building, an analysis of craft production and the advent of industrialized building production quickly became a claim that all building was the responsibility of the architecture profession. The traditional difference of kind between architectural products and ordinary buildings transformed into a relation of architectural concepts and built objects. Minimalism in contemporary world is a wide-spread phenomenon. it derives from rationalism and functionalism of the beginning of the 20th century but, in general, the principles of minimalism exist from the ancient times and are related to various activities of people.

    The present-day architectural minimalism has become a separate architectural trend which emerged as a reaction to expressionist complexity of forms and individualisation in creation. Theoretically contemporary minimalism is described as a method of architectural-stylistic expression, a certain variety of form and style. in practice it manifests as the embodying of a utilitarian function in the most elementary geometrical form – a cube, parallelepiped rectangular or cylinder. However, minimalism may appear so simple only when regarded superficially. The objective reality encourages and enables another interpretation, first as an ideology, creation concept, world-view position, existential principle and the object of internal meaning expression. in the article architectural minimalism is viewed from the ideological and world-view aspect in particular.

    Minimalism is one of the fundamental needs of a human being. its first definition may be found in the Holy Bible already, old and new testament. Today minimalism becomes the ideology of economy while implementing wide social programmes. Nonetheless, minimalism does not block the way for the creative thought. it encourages to use limited spaces of residential apartments and land plots and to find original, non-standard decisions. Still, minimalist expression changes in quality and quantity in the present-day architecture and obtains forms which are distant from the real classical minimalism. The new minimalism could be defined as pseudo-minimalism and hyper-minimalism.

    At the beginning of contemporary architectural minimalism, there was no such phenomenon which could be called pseudo-functionalism. it started manifesting after the World War ii in the USa first of all, where famous architects worked, mostly in Chicago and New York: F.Johnson, L.Mies van der Rohe, M. Breuer. Some of their projects dedicated to rich owners or posh customers – suburban villas, residencies corresponded the formalist doctrine of minimalism by the stylistic features but they were objects of the highest comfort (glass house of F.Johnson, Connecticut, L.Mies van der Rohe’s “hanging house”).

    In Lithuania, for example, the efforts to create pseudo-minimalist objects appeared only during the years of restored independence, when the social layer of wealthy citizens started to form. Some more educated representatives became enchanted of laconic forms of foreign architecture or were encouraged by designers to order minimalist projects. This turned into fashion. The minimalism preserved its stylistic features but their internal meaning completely differs from the authentic, real, democratic minimalism.

    It is really strange that professional architects do not see a difference between the real minimalism and the posh, pseudo-minimalism which conceals million-worth luxury under modest and artificial forms. Speaking about the ideological and philosophical conceptuality, one may distinguish various species of minimalism that manifest in diverse ways – the democratic minimalism, pseudo-minimalism, and hyper-minimalism. all of them have different degrees of positiveness. The end of all form in architecture, the end of space, the end of sensibility – will we applaud that, or do we strive for chances for form?

    in common sense the icon is opposed to the minimalist object. Linguistically, the descriptive, technical term ‘minimalist object’ seems to not have a shorter equivalent, to directly oppose the word ‘icon’. instead it hides for representation. We could contrast ‘iconic object’ with ‘minimalist object’, but that doesn’t sound right.

    Maybe we should talk about: maximalism versus minimalism, max vs. min. Minimalism can rightfully be regarded as the architecture that is not advocated here at eikongraphia. in order to define a maximalist architecture however, it is enormously useful to thoroughly analyse it. i have to quickly note that icon (image) is something different than iconography (image-writing). Charles Jencks nicely discusses iconographic architecture in his book ‘iconic Building’. But i would argue that an icon, image does not necessarily refer to other images. The architecture of Zaha Hadid for instance is iconic, but not iconographic.

    The design for the – soon to be opened – Nelson atkins Museum of art by architect Steven Holl is symptomatic for the direction minimalism has taken, and how saturated it is has become. The translucent boxes offer a rare coherence between inside and outside, and between content and image. at daytime the interior is lit by the sun, at nighttime the park is lit by the interior lights. Moreover, the white box of the interior is literally echoed in the white exterior.

    The white box becomes a white box. Representation doesn’t get more direct than this. But as museums normally don’t exhibit art in front of translucent walls, Holl does some magic and with a trick locates most of the building underground. This ‘burying’ of art and architecture, already signals the possible end of architecture. The danger of making things too minimal might mean reducing the essence of architecture too far, to the extent there is nothing left to look at anymore.

    Minimalism as it started in the beginning of the twentieth century can be characterized by the reduction of parameters that define the form of the object, the reduction of parameters that define the relief of the surfaces, and the reduction parameters that define the color. The classic minimalist object strives to be simple, smoothly finished, and monochrome. it’s most popular colors are white, (concrete) gray, and (glass green). Technically however, black would be just as minimal. Both black and white define the end of the color spectrum. Gray and green can be considered to define another end of the color spectrum – the end of paint, stucco, or foil. after almost a century the concept of minimalism has survived and persists. it even increased the fierceness of its character. its focus narrows.

    In the nineties the fashion of ‘the fold’, introduced by philosopher Gilles Deleuze, did not propose more difference into architecture, as mostly suggested, but actually meant a new stage of the minimalist object. For the first time in architectural history the floor, wall, and ceiling not only had the same color, but became part of the same surface. ‘The fold’ meant a reduction of difference, as all faces became less and less distinguishable. The folding planes popped up everywhere, as all architects around found out how to make their architecture more minimal. The just finished institute of Contemporary art in Boston by the american architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro is the latest addition to the folding style. on top of the folded construction a Nelson-atkins-like semi-transparent white glass volume is placed, combining different minimalist features in a single building.

    One of the best ‘folds’ was designed by Rem Koolhaas’ office for Metropolitan architecture. The floors of their design for a library for the University Campus of Jussieu folded into each other to create a continuous route through the building. The whole building became a single floor. Nobody needs difference. Fascinatingly the model of the design was made out of wooden plates that were bend in a way one only sees in furniture design. it was a rare and beautiful pointing to the minimalist folding in furniture design that had been around since the beginning of Modernism. architonic currently counts the number of plywood furniture pieces on the market at 118.

    As true minimalists they both think even a website is ‘too much’ – they don’t have one. With Zumthor somehow being too much on his own, it has been SaNaa that drew the next stages in minimalism. after more white boxes, more concrete boxes, and more glass boxes, they are increasingly appropriating the curved plane. Their extension to the Toledo Museum of art features curved glass in whole new manner – blurring not only the differences between walls, but also blurring the view through the glass.

    It is a distortion that will reach an even more advanced level in their design for new Learning Center at the University Campus in Lausanne. in Switzerland. Featuring curved surfaces in addition to the curved glass, the Learning Center, blurs or folds all surfaces it has. The ground floor folds to appear as amphitheatre, stepped floor, or else, and the roof follows as smoothened echo of the ground floor. The curved glass opens up the building, but at most angles it only distorts the view. The blur becomes almost total.

    Interesting here is the design that the Norwegian architects of Spacegroup made for the 2005 architecture Biennale in Rotterdam. Their ‘Catamaran City’ is a projected floating building before the Dutch coast that would act as a supporting center to sea-based recreation such as sailing (on catamarans), and surfing. in a single surface the design integrates a huge cabin, an amphitheatre, a sun deck, and different kinds of utility platforms. as an architectural form the single surface echoes the architecture of yachts, boats and surfboards, but also the very minimal surface of the sea itself.

    Similarly the ‘sea of sand’ of Ras al-Khaimah in the United arab emirates seems to inspire architects to challenge the minimal desert with their white and minimalist designs. The Norwegian Snohetta designed a swow-white multi-purpose building with a similar architecture as SaNaa’s Learning Center for Lausanne. Snohetta goes a step further to bent the double folding surface even into a tower.

    oMa, further on the track of their library-design for Jussieu, has also designed a minimalist project for Ras al-Khaimah, a convention center which features a bowl and a rectangular building. it almost seems as if the desert out there resists an icon. The total blurring of SaNaa and Snohetta, and the globe by oMa point to the finite stage of minimalism. From the perspective of the interior-experience the end of architecture would be the total blurring of all difference between floor, wall, and ceiling, the total un-defining of any notion of surface, and the total disappearance of color. Being inside an underground, no-color undefined bowl – i think – would do it.

    When forgetting the dogma that minimalist architecture should look white, ‘The antispective Situation’ by the artist-architect olafur eliasson comes really close to the end of architecture. With a decoding of color (black), a decoding of surface (blinding glitter), and a decoding of object (too pointy to even be defined as an object) there is really nothing left. it is infinite space, no, even beyond that. Close and infinite, blinding and defining. The finite step to the end of architecture has been built in 2002, and been consumed and taken apart again in the same year. The end is already behind us. The Blur-Building by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro was build in Yverdon-les-Bains, in the most minimalist country of them all, Switzerland. The cloud that made the building was generated by spraying water from the (minimalist) lake through 31,500 nozzles.

    “Upon entering the fog mass, visual and acoustic references are erased, leaving only an optical ‘white-out’ and the ‘white-noise’ of pulsing nozzles. Blur is an anti-spectacle. Contrary to immersive environments that strive for high-definition visual fidelity with ever-greater technical virtuosity, Blur is decidedly low-definition: there is nothing to see but our dependence on vision itself”, the architects write on their website. There is even a belief considering minimalism in architecture as merely an historicist style, better named “neo-modernism”, in which the forms of twentieth century architecture are quoted and referred to in a puerile assertion of the self-importance of the discipline.
    However, i have argued that there is something more going on here, a certain monstrosity, about the object-like character of such buildings. Their very artificiality, their sense of being real things made out of dead ideas, brings to light a question that is obvious enough but which has nevertheless been put aside for most of the 20th century: “What is the object that is the result of architecture”?

    Evaluating the widely spreading standard production of minimalist architecture representing the aggression of globalisation, levelling out any manifestations of local culture, it becomes clear that we confront the aggression of hyper-minimalism. The architecture that floods city streets by uniform forms of specular glass makes a revolution in culture rather than in the field of architecture creation.

    It materialises the cosmopolite cross-continental utilitarism and pushes out the content of human spirituality as well as features of regional and national identity. it is a very urgent problem. The danger of this tendency is constantly growing and encompassing new socio-cultural spaces.

    In conclusion, the essence of architectural minimalism is not the stylistics or the utilitarian function packed into a modest and laconic geometrical form but the concept of internal content that is behind the form, the relation with principles of humanism.


    • Macarthur, John (2002). “The Look of the Object: Minimalism in Art and Architecture, Then and Now”. Architectural Theory Review, Vol. 7, issue 1.
    • Foster, Hal (1996). “The Return of the Real – Art and Theory at the End of the Century”, Trade. Meyer, J. (2001). “Minimalism and Polemics in the Sixties”. interbook international.
    • Batchelor, David (1997). “Minimalism”, Cambridge University Press.
    • Foster, Hal (2003). “Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes)”, Verso.
    • Foster, Hal (1996). “The Return of the Real: Art and Theory at the End of the Century”, The MiT Press.
    • Foster, Hal (2002). “The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture”, New Press.

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