Friday, June 24, 2011

The Value of Simplicity

Throughout history our most-loved buildings have been simple structures that were beautifully put together and finished with simple human-scaled details that delight the senses. Memorable places have always been created through the arrangement of these simple structures into complete, connected, walkable communities.

As these communities grew into successful economic powerhouses, their architecture also evolved to create rich, elaborate details that exhibited the strength of the city. This culminated with the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where graduates from the school of architecture went on to produce exuberant buildings and details.


Simple forms with extravagant details (Madrid, Spain)
Modernism arose in part as a reaction to the over exuberance of the beaux arts period of architecture. However, in trying to reclaim a more simple approach to architecture, early modernists got rid of all the detail that made buildings lovable, and were therefore rejected by the general public.

Simplicity without detail
Conventional development recognized this rejection and responded with an attempt to bring back an architecture that could be more easily accepted by the general public. So we started to see a return to traditional architecture, but it was orphaned from its original context of walkable urbanism.

When deployed in an auto-oriented suburban context, the fine-grained detail of authentic traditional architecture loses its meaning and is difficult to be appreciated. In response to a suburban context in which buildings are seen from the vantage point of the car and not the pedestrian, complexity and detail move to the wrong scale. In order to catch the attention of the driver, complex forms and details that can be perceived from a distance are produced. Thus we end up with buildings that have a complex massing, but details that are simply not scaled properly for the delight of people walking by.

Artificial complexity scaled to the automobile
Unfortunately, even when attempting to create walkable environments, much of this same thinking prevails. Instead of creating a simple building with a recognizable massing, unnecessary complexity is added in a feeble attempt to add interest.

Complicated forms overwhelm pedestrian environments
Even avant-garde architects have attempted this approach of complex massing with no fine-grained detail. But without attention to human-scaled detail, these buildings seem imposing and unwelcoming.

Complexity without detail
Instead, history teaches us that the backbone of lovable buildings is a simple, easy-to-understand massing. Much of the beauty of authentic traditional architecture comes from simplicity and composition. Getting the proportions right is far more important than trying to artificially add interest by including lots of elements or creating a complicated massing. Money that is saved by creating a more simple building, can then be spent on better, more authentic details at the proper scale. And while the exuberant details of the beaux arts can indeed be beautiful, they are not necessary to create lovable places.

Authentic simplicity in Troy, NY
Authentic simplicity in Key West, FL
Authentic simplicity in Nantucket, MA


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