The Power of Simplicity
As I think about buildings that I consider successful, it occurs to me that the most powerful expressions are the ones that demonstrate simple concepts carried through with control and elegance. The restraint of the minimalist designer is commendable because it is difficult to strip away pieces of the composition that don't really contribute to the final design. Each designer needs to consciously decide what is the definitive core idea of the solution and amplify the visual dialogue for viewers to understand. Unique, yet simple architectural ideas realized in built form become powerful when there is a strong marriage of conceptual intention and execution. When this combination is achieved, beauty is the result. Below are three examples that I feel illustrate the "the power of simplicity."
The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California by Louis Kahn completed in 1963. This facility was started by Jonas Salk who created the vaccine to cure polio. He wanted to create a laboratory for biologists and other scientists to explore basic principles of life and inspire them to consider wider applications for medical treatment. The courtyard, which includes a small linear pool in the center, is such a simple gesture, yet draws much of the focus for the project.
The Salk Institute by Louis Kahn
Salk Institute Courtyard
Why is this simple pool so powerful? Being perched on a mesa, the buildings frame the view which is due west catching the brilliant sunsets. The colorful sky reflects off the elegant pool as it leads the viewer's eye to the distance directly connecting this man made environment to nature. This simple design move is not only visually powerful, but becomes even stronger when we think about the initial idea of a facility that explores research to heal the body and that body's relationship to nature. Louis Kahn bridges the gap between man, nature and our creator with a minimal amount of material and a high level of visual silence.
The Nelson Atkins Museum addition in Kansas City designed by Steven Holl is a second building I think demonstrates power in it's simplicity. The main idea for this addition is large blocks of "light" placed on a lush lawn adjacent to the existing 1933 Beaux-Arts styled museum. This refined contemporary addition becomes a luminescent sculpture on display for all visitors to see as they enter the site. The minimal glass boxes appear light as a feather when compared to the visually heavy existing museum. The visual contrast is exquisite! The building houses art and literally becomes a work of art exuding the very essence of what architecture portrays itself to be: a living inhabitable art form. This serene notion presents intelligence and strength.
Nelson Atkins Museum
White Chapel, Osaka, Japan
The White Chapel located in Osaka, Japan designed by Aoki Jun in 2006, is another example that shows how the details can bring a supportive level to the argument of simplicity. The form is clear, but the focus of the scheme is a delicate wall of metal rings all welded together to create a lacy veil that allows light to cascade into the tranquil space of worship. The rings are symbolic of the exchanging of wedding rings, very appropriate for a chapel. This wall of rings is structural and helps support the roof. The radiant chapel at night illustrates the true nature of its purpose: simply stated, our creator resides within illuminating the chapel and enticing all to enter and find peace. White Chapel is a coherent and clever scheme showing how the execution of the details can bring a complimentary layer to the final creative vision.
Structural "wedding rings"
Interior of White Chapel
Ideas as demonstrated in these examples create a visual power that is easily remembered with lasting impact to the viewer. I think a higher level of appreciation comes when the true meaning or design intention behind the aesthetics is understood, making sense of the entire thought process. Architectural simplicity makes a statement not to be disguised by unnecessary thoughts or ideas. Powerful simplicity is on a level of sophistication all by itself.
by Dan Pease
Director of Design
Dan offers over 30 years of design and project management experience with a B.S. from The Ohio State University and a Master's of Architecture from University of Michigan. When he's not in the office, Dan loves traveling to the Cayman Islands and eating Chipotle.