Simple Construction

Less Is More

This is the one that started it all. Less Is More is taught and widely believed – whichever came first – to be what mid-20th century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe claimed of his architecture.

I learned just then that the phrase was first used by poet Robert Browning in his 1856 poem Andrea del Sarto. The poem seems longer than it is. Mies van Der Rohe must’ve thought so too.

The idea was that a building didn’t need to consist of very much as long as its elements were few and perfect. This was not the beauty of the found object or the ad-hoc. Miesian beauty had a habit of requiring classy materials like onyx or Carrara marble that weren’t cheap and, God forbid, would never be mistaken for cheap.

Even inexpensive materials such as steel could be converted into value-added ones by adding chromium or bronze, or by processes such as grinding welds smooth or by laying slabs of (Carrara) marble perfectly level in specially-designed trays to collect and drain away whatever rainwater spilt over the edges. I never did understand why the water couldn’t just fall directly onto the floodplain where the grass don’t grow.

Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois-11 (Photo credit: 24gotham)

This dictum of Less Is More extended to the details where, LMvdR claimed, God resided. He (Mies) wasn’t one to say “the Devil is in the detail”. Next up is a window frame detail that has a single pane of glass sandwiched between two steel angles welded to a structural I-beam with a shadow gap of all things. Back in 1945-1951, there was no thermal transfer problem that couldn’t be solved by a shadow gap and oil-fired underfloor heating. Granted, it’s for a summer weekend house, but this window detail is a coolth radiator.

This Swedish window unit has many more parts, materials that are sophisticated in their own way, and also an inert gas. I’m fairly certain it has no more parts than it needs to have in order to take on the additional problem of keeping the building interior warm and free from condensation.

There’s much science to not be seen in the profile design of the spacer bars, thermal inserts, thermal reinforcing, not to mention the argon gas replacing thermally conductive air.

It was Paul Rudolph who said of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (‘though he probably called him by the familiar “Mies”) that his buildings were beautiful only because he chose to solve so few problems. This would all be history now if it weren’t for two important legacies, of which Less is More is one. The other and lesser one was that late 20th century style known as Minimalism, for which much has been claimed for much the same reasons.

Yes Is More

This slogan is from the early 21st century and thus more recent history. I’m not going to spend too much time on it. An architectural practice saying “We don’t say no to anything!” is nothing new and in 2008, BIG was probably the world’s most zeitgeisty practice, mopping up everything ZHA and OMA said either no to or would have had they been asked. They still are.

Feelings Are Facts

This is a new one. On the surface, and probably below as well, it means that subjectivity is objectivity. Curiously, and without getting all philosophical about it, it accords feelings the authority of facts while simultaneously diluting the basis for that authority. It’s as nonsensical as Less is More must once have seemed, and so’s obviously a winner that will run and run. But if feelings are facts, what becomes of facts then, I wonder? Do they get pushed off centre-stage, or offstage completely? I want to be on-record as saying this is one particularly dangerous idea to lob into the English-speaking world at this particular stage in history where, as we see, feelings trump facts. But rather than telling us something new, perhaps this is really just our times being re-stated back at us, telling us something already in the back of our minds. (Zeitgeists being zeitgeists, the big ideas usually do nothing more than hold up a mirror.) But whether it’s prescient or merely perceptive, it’s already the one statement that sums up our times. Worryingly, when this particular idea has overstayed its welcome, signaling its end isn’t going to be as simple as putting “Post-“ in front of it.

You can read a bit more about Feelings are Facts in this 2016 book with a foreword by Peter Cook.

MAD Works: MAD Architects

by Ma Yansong (Author)

Phaidon Press

The first complete overview of the most important contemporary architecture practice ever to have emerged from China

I’m not ignoring the political implications of Feelings are Facts but to react to it emotionally is to admit its truth. And maybe there is some. Architects do, after all, want people to like their buildings on some level even if it’s only a superficial one. And even if the general public are never the ones that commission buildings, their opinion still needs to be courted and media profiles still need to be worked on or else the rich and famous will never know who to commission. All considered, it seems like the right time for a revival of buildings people feel they relate to, even if architects like to overstate the importance their buildings have for society.

After alll, it’s only a hundred years since we had architects telling us how we should live. Buildings catering to low-level Maslovian needs might have housed people but they didn’t feed their souls we were told. Post-modern architects architectplained to us that this was because of a lack of historical reference in our public architecture – any public architecture other than public housing, that is – and duly stepped up to the plate. But even this proved too intellectual, paving the way for ruthless populist practices such as Bjarke Ingels’ BIG and superficially down-to-earth (“I like curves”) Zaha Hadid. Neoliberal expressionist architecture and its architecture of affect was beyond criticism because it was meant to be. All its clients wanted of it was for people to cower before it.

As the temples to our tech giants show, people like being shown who their oppressors are.

But if it’s now okay to have feelings again, Neoliberal Expressionism must’ve been overconfident ahead of its time. In this past fifty years we’ve come a long way from architects telling us what buildings should mean to us, to architects telling us what they should make us feel.

It’s sometimes the case that a blog post only happens when two or more events or thoughts are close enough to force a connection and that’s what happened here. The first was me encountering that statement “Feelings are Facts” at a time when, in a Theory class, I was trying to explain to students how (all?) architectural aesthetic ideas can be divided into one of three categories. In the past I’ve called these categories Ideas of Separate, Ideas of Unite and Ideas of Negate and between March 2019 and January 2021 there was a series of posts as my first public attempt to describe this way of looking at buildings and understanding them. The names of these three categories of architectural idea translated cleanly into Chinese but, with the more complex effects, things began to unravel. I shouldn’t have been surprised those names had no direct equivalents in Chinese as they were only ever approximations in English to start with.

But if something is identifiable as I was claiming, then it is distinct and has to be called something and so I devised a system of notation using letters and superscripts to indicate how, using these three types of idea, the brain modifies what the eye sees. The two systems were interchangeable and, although their identifiers weren’t words, they were unique and described what was going on. In retrospect, this new notation did nothing more than what Chinese characters do all the time.

Those three types of idea include all the big ones or rather, all the big visual aesthetic ones. Ideas of Separate include novelty, innovation, natural and artificial. That’s a lot already. Ideas of Unite include knowledge of function, type and culture as well as concepts such as ecological.

I provisionally include “History” here, thereby indicating my interpretation of it a set of ideas forming some kind of conceptual temporal unity with some present-day real-life context. I suspect however, that grouping and locating these ideas merely marks a wormhole to some separate framework that maps architectural aesthetic concepts in the dimension of Time. (I’m curious, but there’s still much to know about the here and now.)

Ideas of Negate are when the design of a building is contrived to make us think a building is either not a building, or not the building it is. This accounts for buildings shaped like ducks and such, but, in very rare cases, a thought of “that is not a building!” accounts for those rare buildings that have the power to change our perception of what it is a building can be. My thesis is that these are the only words and concepts one needs to explain and understand what any building is doing aesthetically. For visual aesthetics, that is.

But instead of these three categories of facts, suppose we substitute feelings and see what we get? What is the emotional effect of these Ideas of Separate, for example? What do we want to feel from “newness” for example? There must be something because so much architectural endeavour is spent trying to produce it. To get the ball rolling, I’m going to say “EXCITING”, but only because we think buildings that don’t have an idea that produces this feeling are “DULL” or “LAME”. Variety is the spice of life, they say, even if some people might find an excess of excitement “THREATENING”. On the other hand, Ideas of Unite are safe and satisfying. “Harmonious” is the traditional synonym but already embedded is the notion that Harmony is A Good Thing. I’m going to go with “SATISFYING”, but only because too much harmony can be “BORING”. So far so neat. For Ideas of Negate, I’m going to go with “SURPRISING” for now, but only because I see the opposite as “PREDICTABLE” because I know I will have to account for the “I never thought a building could be (as amazing as) this!” factor. In passing, the much spoken-of “DELIGHT” would be a combination of “EXCITING” and “SURPRISING,” and possibly with a touch of “SATISFYING”. And who’s to say it’s not?

  • If there was no exciting Idea of Separate (such as “newness”), we’d still be left with something satisfying and surprising. It just wouldn’t be exciting.
  • If there was no satisfying Idea of Unite (such as “proportional” or “in scale”), we’d still be left with something exciting and surprising. It might be strange, but it wouldn’t be satisfying or comforting.
  • If there was no surprising Idea of Negate (such as “is it really a building?” or “incredible!”) then we’d still be left with something exciting and satisfying, but not challenging.

I feel there’s more to reveal in the intersections of these three emotions and, hopefully, there’ll be relatable words to pin down those feelings. If those words translate cleanly into other languages, it‘d be a sign of shared, if not necessarily universal, concerns and would indicate the degree that architectural beauty is a socio-economic construct.

Rather than identifying qualities that architects strive to produce and which are supposedly the product of their various design choices (appropriately modified by some design theory or manifesto), I don’t see anything wrong with introducing into the design process the names for the emotions by which a building will be evaluated, provided we can agree what they should be. I still believe in facts, but it might be time to admit that there are no facts in architectural aesthetics, and that what we thought were facts were, at their heart, really emotions after all. That’s not hard to understand. The hard part will be not getting all emotional about it.

I began by distrusting this idea that Feelings are Facts but instead concluded that, as far as architectural aesthetics is concerned, certain things we thought were facts – the notion of “harmony” for example – might have only ever been the articulation of feelings, So I’m not as opposed to this construction Feelings are Facts as I thought I’d be. Just because something is subjective doesn’t mean it can’t be mapped or analyzed. But that’s not about to happen and is why I’m sharing. Where all this feeling–fact stuff will lead architecturally is another matter. I understand its appealbut, by not reacting to it emotionally, I can’t be feeling it. I won’t be surprised if Feelings are Facts is interpreted as license to do anything and without justification, and for those who have to live with the consequences, the only difference will be being expected to emote on sight of a building instead of cowering before it.

Feeling are Facts might be taking our relationship to buildings to another level but whether up or down I can’t say. Without getting all Foucault about it, there’s also the very real possibility it’s just a new way of making things stay the same.


2 thoughts on “Simple Construction

  1. Baukunst

    Thought provoking. I like the way you piggy backed emotional characteristics on AoA.
    I dare say, we can have a number of quality categories…
    -Beauty (AoA)
    -Emotional (AoA offshoot)
    -Daily User Experience (functionality)
    -Visitor Experience (functionality)
    -Ease of Maintenance (owner)
    -Operational Costs (owner)

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Yes, AofA was only ever about visual aesthetics anyway but if that’s grounded or groundable in terms of emotions then in a way it’s a huge simplification, and one in which everyone can have a say. In theory. I’m inclined to think though, that Feelings are Facts is just something new to be clever or stupid with. The mission stays unchanged. Mapping visual beauty in terms of anything ought to reduce its power over us.

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