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Minimalism: In Poor Taste

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Here’s another one from the archive. April 1999. I remember the career trajectory of John Pawson worrying me at the time. Then, everyone was talking about Minimalism. I later found out I lived about 200m from Pawson’s King’s Cross studio. Now, when I look back on this, I was clearly angry about something. I’ve bracketed notes and comments I’ve added.

Last century, bare timber floors were a sign of not being able to afford carpets. Fitted carpets replaced large carpets as statements of affluence but once the suburbs were fitted with fitted carpets, a new and generally unreachable level of affluence or taste was to have a carpet woven to fit the shape of the room.

[The last time I saw this done was at The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. In this photograph we can see strips of carpet but I’m told because I wasn’t allowed to enter the mosque proper that the carpet in the prayer hall was woven as a single piece – in Iran that, despite the differing views, has serious history with carpets. This is serious coordination. I’m inclined to believe this, as long as there are no columns inside the prayer hall. It would be topographically impossible to do this one the columns were in place, although cuts in the carpet could mean it was still “one piece”. It might be the case that there’ are no columns ins the prayer hall since I’m told it’s not good Muslim practice to worship between columns.]

Bespoke woven carpets invariably have borders around them to display the fact. It was probably the prudent allocation of resources during the 60s refurbishment of neglected terraced housing that led to timber floors remaining bare for extended periods and people coming to see them as perfectly serviceable floors beautiful in their own right. This new aspiration spread to the suburbs, and led to the invention of timber laminate panels for those whose floors were concrete. In short, finding beauty in a bare timber floor came to carry notions of status. Now that the rehabilitation of timber floors in themselves as an object of status is complete, the size and type of wood is coming to denote a heightened aesthetic sensibility. The longer and wider the boards the better, the only limit being the size of the tree. The more unique the timber the better. [And also, the more decadent the process the better, such as blocking off the street so that floorboards the full length of the house can be hauled in through the window and, as a concession to the representation of economy, using the offcuts to make a dining table and benches.]

The misuse of known technologies could conceivably allow a single tree to be shaved into a 3/4” veneer, rolled up, hoisted through a window and fitted in one piece like a carpet. But as a floor. In teak, preferably. It would have no lines, joins or visible nails for it would be screwed to the joists from below in order to not compromise its “beauty”. Fashionable people will replace their floorboards with these new thick timber-veneer floors and floorboards will come to indicate either reactionary period living or penny-pinching constructional expedience over appreciating the beauty of teak veneer. Or being able to afford it. It doesn’t matter which, for floorboards would automatically come to be seen as “poor taste”. They will have hardboard laid over them and covered with either thin timber veneer or predictable substitutes hastily provided by linoleum or paint manufacturers. Floorboards will go the way of fitted carpet, and linoleum before that. This is a not-so-hypothetical example of how an aesthetic cascades (down) through society. As any aesthetic becomes more popular, new ways have to be found for it to remain exclusive (i.e. unaffordable) if it is to maintain its value as a commodity. 

Ostensibly, the Minimalist aesthetic is that of an enclosure creating the sensation of infinite space, a concept the Japanese found attractive even when both space and Nature were abundant. But feudalism in the past and overcrowding in the present have led to owning any space, let alone property, being an object of status, and if space is a commodity, then appearing to have infinitely more is somehow better even if it isn’t real. Minimalism is much money being used to create the impression of having little except a sense of infinite space – a trompe l’oeil of nothing. It is an expensive aesthetic of denial of both the envelope and use, and an apparent denial of possession when linked to the concept of voluntary poverty. It is not an aesthetic for people who are actually poor. 

Last year [1998], the Royal Academy devoted an evening of lectures debating whether Minimalism was actually an aesthetic philosphy of lasting value or merely a passing fad. That Clerkenwell loft owners painted their lofts white and regarded them as Minimalist was seen as a dilution, if not a pollution. Minimalism’s increasing popularity was seen as the beginning of its end as a high-end aesthetic. Obviously it was, but Claudio Silvestrin’s slideshow and soundbite commentary illustrated the extent to which its promoters now have to go for it to retain its upmarket appeal. A slide of the clay tennis court at the villa in Majorca was accompanied by the maxim “Let the earth be the earth”. I saw people taking notes. Me. I made a mental note that if ever I have to design fifty townhouses on a rectangle of land the same size, I will remember to “let the earth be the earth”.

[This is the photograph I saw at the talk. More recent photographs show the earth covered with fake grass. (]

A slide of the unaccepted proposal for the bathroom in Calvin Klein’s Manhattan pad came with “Clearly, one has to be very brave to live in a space like this.” Perhaps – it must be John Pawson speaking now – but his bathroom for Calvin Klein was about the size of the Royal Academy lecture hall. I remember Pawson saying that it takes a special kind of person to be able to live in a space like that.

A knowledge of the Japanese language is not needed to suspect that the sense in which a certain sect of Japanese spiritual people use the term voluntary poverty is a state of being in which worldly goods are renounced in favour of the spiritual. But in the cold logic of English, if we are to allow Pawson’s concept of voluntary poverty, we must also allow concepts of involuntary poverty, voluntary wealth, and involuntary wealth. We can ponder the meaning of the latter two, but safely assume they’re not going to have consequences as serious as the concept of, let alone the reality of, involuntary poverty. The most offensive side-effect of the concept of voluntary poverty (in our world) is that it by definition automatically separates and stigmatises the involuntarily poor. The involuntarily poor have no choice but to aspire to be voluntarily poor. And to entertain that choice is an aspiration in itself. The aesthetic effect of Minimalism is magnified in proportion to the amount of things one can voluntarily choose to do without. In other words, the appearance of less is being used as a metaphor for wealth. This finds fertile ground in Britain, in architectural circles and with the wealthy, where the ostentatious display of wealth is generally frowned upon. And this is why it is widely imitated. And as long as it is, we can expect to see the indirect display of increasingly unachievable amounts of wealth being hidden behind the unassailable aesthetic defence of Nature. And we can expect to see direct displays of aesthetic pretension being hidden behind the intimidating philosophical defence of Zen. We can’t do much about the former as some people will always have more money than others and can and will display it however they damn well please. In the case of the latter however, I propose we screen all architecture having Minimalist pretensions, to check for an easily understandable Zen concept that outranks voluntary poverty because it’s a state of being that can’t be linked to a state of having. [Unless, of course – and this is Silvestrin and Pawson’s USP – the representation of having nothing is used to signify having a lot lot more than other people. It takes a huge amount of money to use large sizes of premium materials and to eliminate construction joints so that a building does not look like a constructed object.]

FOOTNOTE: Pawson uses the term ‘voluntary poverty’ as a translation of the Japanese word sabi – quiet simplicity. But sabi can also mean desolation, loneliness, wretchedness and so on.  For all practical purposes, it’s indistinguishable from its sister-concept of wabi which also means quiet simplicity – or desolation, loneliness. However, the adjectival forms of these two nouns provide a clue to understanding. Sabishii is lonely, desolate, and the missing of something and of feeling its loss. Wabishii is also lonely, desolate and the missing of something but with an aspect of aesthetic pleasure because of that. For example, Your lover has left you and you feel lonely and sad. This is a sabi moment. However, if your lover has left you and you feel lonely and sad, and pick up your guitar and sing the blues, this is a wabi moment. It has an enhancing aesthetic which others’ lives are the poorer through missing out on. Wabi converts that lack of something into art. [It’s easy enough to confuse sabi and wabi. My explanation above was how I made my peace with the two words. But, twenty-odd years on, this term voluntary poverty still rankles me. I think it’s because for those who are involuntarily poor, to have the choice to be voluntarily poor is an aspiration in itself. This style known as Minimalism was a creature of its times and the 1980s were ugly times.

Of course, none of this matters now, twenty four years on. We found other things to occupy ourselves.]


  • says:

    I have worked on a number of theatre projects with custom woven carpets. The carpets maybe by the archiect team member or based on a design by an artist or other designer.
    They have been wonderful creations and adds feeling of luxury to a project. But they a re simply value for money covering large expanses sometimes, other times small rooms and spaces. Usually accessible to Allie public. Great to walk-on, easy to clean and maintain. Almost indestructible, long lasting. Great value for money. The weave can be complex or simple. Doesn’t seem to matter I encourage architects to take advantage of the product and technology whenever possible.

  • says:

    «In a hilarious conversation, which is also one of the best critiques of minimalist design, a monk living in Pawson’s monastery reveals that the commission came about after one of the monks visited the Calvin Klein store in New York, designed by the British Architect. Faced with the spectacle of simplicity, the monk was ecstatic: ‘it was so pure nothing distracted from the product, it was shopping taken to a religious level. Wouldn’t it make a wonderful monastery, we thought, if we replaced Fashion with God?»

    Less is Enough – Pier Vittorio Aureli

    • says:

      It’s another attempt to link visual simplicity with sprituality – a Western version this time – and give the surfaces of Minimalism some moral depth. It’s no surprise the monk was a Cistercian – one of the more commercially-oriented orders, and not a Franciscan for whom the very idea of money is abhorrent.

  • Very good! If was just the coffee-table-book architects working for the richest few this would be of little practical interest but this visual minimalism infects everything. It would be cathartic for me to list examples of complex and expensive visual minimalism on the projects I work on where the budget is always limited and often from the public purse. Flooring is a nice example well explained but gets me thinking of roofs and walls down to the details such as omitting skirting boards and trim. Minimalism in architecture and minimalism in engineering are polar opposites.