Monday, October 12, 2009

Less is More Abuse

Here we go on another Tillerman inspired tangent in which the author fails to follow the instructions of the assignment, but instead changes the subject more or less entirely and heads off into realms hinted at, but not anticipated in the original beseechment for sailing related wisdom and foolishness. The author may here and there take issue with the minimalist sophistry embedded in the phrase, “less is more,” which is the inspiration for the assignment to which this is a response, but which strikes the author as a sometime duplicitous representation of one’s work, which falls, in fact, considerably short in achieving the “more” half of the aphorism. That being said, the author in no way endorses the pre-twentieth century industrialization model of unnecessary elaboration and needless decoration typical of practitioners of both the literary and architectural arts in the earlier eras.

Less is more version of the above: Caution – off topic discussion follows.

Maybe that’s just a less is less version.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is given credit for coining the phrase “less is more,” but apparently he borrowed it from 19th century British poet Robert Browning. Browning’s poem admires the idea, though Browning himself makes no claim to embody it in his work.

Who strive - you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) - so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

Mies (anyone who has studied architecture is on a first name, or first surname basis with him), on the other hand, uses the phrase as a philosophical justification for everything he does, whether or not he really achieves it in a given work. My view is that he began with a bang. The Barcelona Pavilion uses simple planes of a few materials to produce suggestions of spaces and relationships between them that are interesting and rich – certainly more complex than the elements that define them. Pretty cool!
His Barcelona chair is a classic. Each side of the chair uses a curved X of a single sized piece of stainless steel to make the legs, back, and seat support. Again, pretty cool!
Mies’ disciples also used his axiom to do some great work. Eero Saarinen did a pretty good job of making less into more in his own “ism,” expressionism.
And again in a really cool little building, the MIT chapel. It is a small cylinder surrounded by a moat. It has little arches down near the moat. Inside the arches is a recessed wall, and there is an invisible horizontal window in between. There is also a circular skylight in the roof. The result is that light dances on interior walls and over the alter. Less is way more here!
(Look, there’s a boat!)
But “less is more” also brought us this Mies so called “masterpiece.”
There is some nice clean detailing here in the Seagram Building, but I don’t see the “more” part.

And then there is this, Crown Hall at IIT in Chicago, supposedly one of Mies’ crowning achievements.

This is an interior view.

Seems like a clear expression of less is less.

Then along came Robert Venturi who wrote a book entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. It was the beginning of post-modernism. He declared that architecture is inherently complex …and contradictory and coined his own aphorism that so aptly describes the above picture:

“Less is a BORE.”

And so, architecture has gone in a different direction.

I now ask myself, “What is the point of this little digression?” I think Tillerman just hit my anti – Mies nerve – an old architecture school malady. He is one of the three Gods of twentieth century architecture, but I could never worship at his altar. To me, his work (except for the earliest work) is a stronger representation of industrialization, mechanization, standardization, and a bunch of other ………tions than it is of an artistic or Zen-like spirit of minimalism. The industrialized version of “less is more” isn’t working out so well on many fronts, yet Mies usually gets his name mentioned when we want us to consider a much more sublime concept.


  1. Wow. Thanks for the education.

    Who would have thunk that my drunken walk and leaps from a joke post about being anal-retentive to blank lines at end of posts to blank posts to ramblings about minimalism to a group writing project on a quote whose author I had to look up would lead to a lecture/rant on 20th century architecture.

    What a talented and knowledgeable bunch of readers I have.

    Hmmm. Dare I run a group writing project on "post-modernist sailing"?

  2. I rather like 'Carelessly passing with your robes afloat'.

  3. Brilliant post, Yarg!

    I think you've overlooked one of Mies' earlier triumphs, though - clearly illustrated in the photo above. What other architect managed to incorporate a kayak into one of his designs?

  4. O Docker, I hate to correct you, but the kayak is in a picture of a Saarinen building. My anti-Mies sentiment remains unshaken. By the way, that Kayak is made out of concrete. I don't know what these MIT students are trying to prove, but I don't think it is "less is more."