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February 29, 2012

The ethics of aesthetic austerity are clear

In art and design, and especially in architecture, austerity means modernism and minimalism: the concept, famously advanced by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, that "less is more." Some of this expresses the obligation of any good designer to honor an economy of means, to acknowledge that architecture, like governance, is primarily the art of spending other people's money. But most of it is a little more mysterious.

Not just any "less" is the right "more." A minimal design must be progressively reduced and refined to its essential and sometimes surprising causes and effects, just as a divinely immanent David was discovered by Michelangelo inside an unpromising block of stone. All else is decoration, deception and distraction. Thus because some cuts are figuratively as well as literally incisive, any cut can seem wise: austere art is smart art. It's an architecture of revealed order and selective filtering and pattern recognition.

The aesthetic austerity that results requires and rewards our inclination to look and think: wander long enough around Mies's glassy Farnsworth House of 1950, and you see crystallized in every simple and delicately floating surface the bones of every good house ever made -- a severe and serene dream of comfort and clarity, refuge and prospect. At least in theory.

Why Less Isn't Always More
Published: February 25, 2012
The word austerity rolls trippingly off the tongue and connotes ethical propriety and pleasing aesthetics.


Is the story complete without a reference to Stendahl ?