Mies was Right

Less is [Definitely] More

S.R. Crown Hall, IIT, Chicago, IL by Mies van der Rohe. Photo by Ben Kasdan.

We live in a culture of more, and it’s lousy. Everything is pressured to be bigger, more extravagant, and cost more. More square footage, more trim, less negative space. But all of the extras rarely make for a better experience.

The “less” that legendary Modernist Architect, Mies van der Rohe, championed was not about less value — in fact, quite the opposite — but about less extemporaneous stuff. Specifically, his “less is more” mantra refers to expressing the structure of the building as its ornament, as opposed to covering it up and dressing up the facades with fake do-dads and clunky thing-a-ma-gigs. But it was more than just a formal strategy, it was about a frame of mind in which only the essential elements of a design are included. In turn, each of those essential elements increase in value, as opposed to being watered down by frivolous extras.

Ok, so Mies got to design university campuses, museums, skyscrapers, civic buildings, and other glamorous high-profile projects of glass & steel… how does “less” apply to more humble architecture of wood & stucco designed everyday architects in firms?

By getting back to the essence of the design problem that is being solved. Push back on pointless requests for more ornament and question whether that “‘blank wall’ needs more stuff on it.” Get to the big idea and resist the pressure to clutter it up with “more.” It means that elegant proportions and graceful forms are now imperative to any successful design.

Every architectural project is subject to a lot of different, and typically contradictory, forces — bosses, clients, equity partners, community groups, city staff, design review boards, planning commissioners, city council members, etc. — but very few of those people realize the potential value of “less.” Their compulsion to participate in the design process inevitably leads to requests (if not demands) for “more.”

However, it is our duty as architects to advocate on behalf of the design, and its experiential impact on its future users, to stand up for “less.” It is worth it, and no one else will.