Less is More now more than ever

House Swart, Betty's Bay (2009)
House Swart, Betty’s Bay (2009)

‘Less is More’ now more than ever

Written by Raymond Smith, January 2022

‘Less is more’ — This well-known quote by German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, has become more relevant in the 21st century than when it was first uttered early in the 20th century by the modernist pioneer. As we know, in that context it referred to Van der Rohe’s search for a style that represented the spirit of the time. Part of this exploration included a total disregard for embellishments and unnecessary decorative details–a complete conceptual break from what has gone before.

Today, his words has gained greater importance for reasons which was not part of the agenda during the modernist project, namely sustainability. Our impact on natural resources was placed firmly on the world agenda with the advent of the Brundtland Commission in 1980 on Environment and Development. The concerns of sustainable economic development against the background of degradation of the ecology gave rise to the definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Briefly speaking, this translates into using less materials and other resources to achieve more – in other words, don’t be wasteful.

Achieving your aims without unnecessary elements

‘Less is more’ implies achieving your aims without unnecessary elements that does not contribute meaningfully to the overall idea. Way back during the Renaissance period from the 15th to 16th century, a time of rebirth following the Middle Ages, Leonardo da Vinci has been noted for saying that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

This is certainly true in design. A design should be resolved to the point where each element is critical to the final result.

The 20th century writer George Orwell was an English novelist and critic who wrote an essay entitled Politics and the English Language (1946) after WWII. He was alarmed at how “deliberately misleading language can be used to conceal facts” in propaganda, for instance (J. Hawkins, Jan 2021). This resulted in him presenting rules for writing complex ideas concisely with fewer words:

  1. Never use long words, where a short one will do.
  2. If it’s possible to cut a word out and retain your core message, cut it.
  3. Never use passive language where you can use active.
  4. Never use jargon or a foreign word when you can communicate the same information with an everyday English equivalent.

Unwritten rules

In design the same unwritten rules apply as in writing, such as well-edited text. A good design contains only what is essential for it to serve its purpose – no more, no less. This also forces the creator to think harder, which usually results in a design that has conviction.

This brings us back to the three principles of good architecture as written by the Roman architect, Vitruvius, in his first Century BC treatise De Architectura: “Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas.” It must be firm, practical and have an element of delight.

During most design periods additional details, embellishments and décor were introduced to create delight, whereas in modernism inherent qualities of space, light, line, texture and material were employed to ensure delight to the spatial experience.

In the accompanying photograph of House Swart for instance, the three different planes were applied to allow a play of dramatic light and shadow to add interest to the otherwise quiet simplistic visual experience.