The trouble with minimal
MARFArchitecture + Design
By LARRY DOLL
Several years ago The New Yorker ran a cartoon with a preppy looking fellow sitting behind a desk chatting with a younger couple. Through steepled hands he said, “Sure. We could do spare and minimal. But not on your budget.”
It’s always been the case that (especially in urban settings) minimal design is more work and therefore more expensive than other types of construction. It’s difficult when you can’t cover seams with trim or visible flashing. It’s hard to make walls smooth enough that their imperfections don’t need to be disguised with wallpaper. And in a super busy labor market it’s nearly impossible to find people willing to spend the time to get things perfect. Minimal is all kinds of trouble. Nonetheless, architects and some of their clients continue to be drawn in that direction. What gives? Why Minimal and why Marfa?
The easy answer is that minimal is just the style of the moment. But that’s only the easy answer. Maybe we like minimal because of the trouble. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in the movie, A League Of Their Own, “it’s the trouble that makes it good.” Minimal when well executed is a reduction of resources, not a reduction of ideas.
It might be useful to define what we typically mean when we say something is minimal. Usually we are referring to a restricted palette of materials and details, simple geometries for rooms and walls, a careful consideration of proportions, and lots of attention to light and shadow. In some cases we might also look for a sense of economy through the use of local materials and the employment of local artisans. We are looking for a sense of the modern without the slick, skinniness associated with high modern. Maybe minimal architecture could be characterized as thick modern.
If you are interested in precedents for thick modern you might Google Rudolf Olgiati or Sigurd Lewerentz. Although they were both of the high modern era, they each, through their work, expressed a dissatisfaction with the ephemeral, rootless character so present in the work of their peers.
Olgiati practiced until the mid-1990s in Flims, a small town in the Swiss Alps. He never strayed far from home but garnered a broad reputation because of the quality and focus of his work. Many of his projects were residential remodels. All of them made use of local crafts of masonry and plastering. Each structure was wedded to its site and it was frequently very difficult to distinguish the new from the old. Woodwork was held to a minimum and openings in very thick walls were splayed to catch small but constant amounts of light. Furniture was typically crafted by locals and was very simple but strong. The houses still look as if they will last forever. Sound familiar?
From an architect’s perspective, minimal is a particularly difficult sort of challenge. That’s the point. Supposedly the artist Matthew Barney believes that for his art to be good it must challenge him physically. It’s the same for architects and their work only with minimal architecture the challenge is more likely to be intellectual. The more a design resists resolution, the better it has to be in the end. When an architect is limited to a palette of light and space and a few simple materials the building has to be better to work at all. With this sort of reduced palette there is no way to hide mistakes so there better not be any.
We can’t talk about Marfa and Minimal without referencing Donald Judd. His call for art that is locality specific, permanently installed, and (where possible) housed in structures that attempt to disturb no previously undisturbed ground is fundamental to the sensibilities on which Marfa Minimal is based. These are not stylistic affectations.
But minimal was here before Judd, in the form of old adobe houses and in no-monkey-business ranch or industrial buildings. Minimal was also here in the landscape — the way it evidences a foreground and a background but very little middle ground. Even the particular sort of adobe construction found in Marfa is a minimal form of adobe. Here, adobe is distinctly different from the sloped and rounded walls of Santa Fe (mostly chicken wire and stucco by the way) which, even when authentic, represent a sort of wealth that can afford to repair rain damaged walls over and over again until they mimic smooth rock outcroppings. In Marfa adobe is a material, not a style. Its corners are square and it doesn’t mind sharing the stage with steel or concrete. It is employed because it is close at hand and its properties are perfectly suited to the climate and light of the mountain desert.
In Marfa we are truly fortunate to have talented designers and crafts people who are skilled in masonry, plastering, welding, and other trades central to an emerging architectural character. During the next days celebrating MARFArchitecture + Design folks will have a rare chance to hear and see what it means when someone says, “Marfa Minimal.”
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Larry Doll lives in Marfa and in Austin where he teaches architectural design and theory at The University of Texas at Austin.
Story filed under: Arts