The Endgame of Minimalism

Olafur Eliasson (with Gunther Vogt) - Mediated Motion, at the Bregenz Kunsthaus (Photographer: Markus Tretter)
Olafur Eliasson (with Gunther Vogt) - Mediated Motion, at the Bregenz Kunsthaus
(Photographer: Markus Tretter)

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.

Peter Zumthor - Kunsthaus, Bregenz, Switserland (Photograph: Wikipedia)
Peter Zumthor - Kunsthaus, Bregenz, Switzerland

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.

Steven Holl - Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, USA (Photographer: Andy Ryan)
Steven Holl - Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, USA (Photographer: Andy Ryan)

Steven Holl - Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, USA (Photographer: Andy Ryan)
Steven Holl - Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, USA (Photographer: Andy Ryan)

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.

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, USA
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, USA

Diller Scofidio + Renfro - Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology, New York
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Eyebeam Institute of Art and Technology, New York

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.

That is still far less than the about 1400 tubular steel chairs that have been designed through the years, but the 118 clearly indicate how far the minimalist folding has reached.

The folding-fashion in architecture has in the meantime stretched into the work of architects like UN Studio , Plot = BIG + JDS, Foreign Office, MVRDV, and so on.

Rem Koolhaas/OMA - Tres Grande Bibliotheque, Jussieu, France, at the Content Exhibition in Rotterdam (Photographer: Michiel van Raaij)
Rem Koolhaas/OMA - Tres Grande Bibliotheque, Jussieu, France, at the Content Exhibition in
Rotterdam (Photographer: Michiel van Raaij)

UN Studio - Laboratory University of Utrecht, the Netherlands
UN Studio - Laboratory for the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands

Plot = BIG + JDS - Maritime Youth Center, Kopenhagen, Danmark
Plot = BIG + JDS - Maritime Youth Center, Kopenhagen, Danmark

Foreign Office Architects - BBC Music Center, London, UK
Foreign Office Architects - BBC Music Center, London, UK

Most minimalist architecture is built in Japan and Switzerland. Not by coincidence both countries have the technically most advanced building industry of the globe. Minimalism is a mentality. And obviously the two most minimalist architects are from those countries – Peter Zumthor from the Alps, SANAA from the land of the rising sun.

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.

SANAA - Pavilion for the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, USA (Photographer: Kazzle Dazzle/Flickr)
SANAA - Pavilion for the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, USA (Photographer: Kazzle Dazzle/Flickr)

SANAA - Pavilion for the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, USA (Photographer: Kazzle Dazzle/Flickr)
SANAA - Pavilion for the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, USA (Photographer: Kazzle Dazzle/Flickr)

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. 

SANAA - Learning Center, Lausanne, Switserland
SANAA - Learning Center, Lausanne, Switzerland

SANAA - Learning Center, Lausanne, Switserland
SANAA - Learning Center, Lausanne, Switzerland

SANAA - Learning Center, Lausanne, Switserland
SANAA - Learning Center, Lausanne, Switzerland

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.

Spacegroup - Catamarancity, at the Rotterdam Biennale 2005 (Photographer: Michiel van Raaij)
Spacegroup - Catamaran City, at the Rotterdam Biennale 2005 (Photographer: Michiel van Raaij)

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.

Snohetta - Multi-Purpose Building, Ras Al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates
Snohetta - Multi-Purpose Building, Ras Al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates

Rem Koolhaas/OMA - Ras Al-Khaimah Convention Center, United Arab Emirates
Rem Koolhaas/OMA - Ras Al-Khaimah Convention Center, United Arab Emirates (Copyright OMA)

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 balcony one is standing on suddenly becomes horrifying. 

Olafur Eliasson - The antispective situation 2003 (Photographer: Shigeo Anzai)
Olafur Eliasson - The antispective situation 2003 (Photographer: Shigeo Anzai)

Olafur Eliasson - The antispective situation 2003 (Photographer: Shigeo Anzai)
Olafur Eliasson - The antispective situation 2003 (Photographer: Shigeo Anzai)

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.

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland

In the impenetrable fog all is gone. It is the end of architecture.


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