Minimalism, An Obituary

Here is one of my contributions to the Obituaries issue of the New City Reader,  edited by MOS. If you can’t get to the New Museum to pick up a copy, download the whole thing here.

The Death of Nothing

Architectural Minimalism rose again from the ground this week. Still not dead, it is 38.

Of course, the undead usually don’t get obiturized. That’s because the undead exist outside of those fundamental human frameworks of beginning and end, outside of the narrative arcs that we project onto the world around us. For the undead, there’s no life support machine to turn off, no last words, no final curtain.

In myths, we can finish off the undead with silver bullets, a stake through the heart or by slicing their heads clean off. In real life though, the undead are harder to destroy. They drift on, unchecked through eternity like debris through space. But maybe, in the real world, an obituary might just be the thing to do it. Maybe an obituary is not just a catalogue of the slings and arrows of a particular life form. Maybe it could gain a little agency. Maybe, in some occult manner, an obituary could perform proactively.

So, we come here to bury Minimalism, despite its own protestations. Don’t listen to its pleas as we throw handfuls of soil onto its grave. For all of us, even for Minimalism, scratching against the lid of its sublime onyx coffin down there, this is really for the best.

According to previous architectural obiturists, Modernism died at 3 p.m. on March 16, 1972, in St. Louis, with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. But unnoticed at the time, something rose from the clouds of dust, a spectral architectural form. Minimalism was born—not alive, not dead—in this moment, a ghostly incarnation of one half of its genetic forbear just at the moment of death, like a soul leaving a corpse.

Minimalism sprung from the loins of an unlikely union. On one side of its heritage lies Modernism. The Big M, Continental Modernism, complete with revolutionary zeal and commitment to social progress, bearing its utopian dream and its belief that the very substance of architecture might be able to deliver this shining vision.

The other half of its DNA derives from a condition of totalized and singular aesthetic refinement—of high taste, of aesthetic rightness, of absolute disengagement with the world. A kind of nihilist perfection where things, rather than lives, are ordered, whose grand family tree stretches back through the ages. Its names have been legion, though we might call its secret constancy ”Aesthetic.” Throughout time, its power has operated through slight of hand, its invisible maneuvers assimilating opposition and threat through deployment of the most despicable of all tactics: irresistible cold-hearted beauty.

That Minimalism should emerge from these progenitors is the kind of tragedy that would have resonated with the Greeks. Earlier in the century, Modernism had attempted to assassinate Aesthetic, to overthrow its grip on the throat of culture and society, on the hierarchies of power and economics. Minimalism then was born out of this troubled relationship: out of Aesthetics’ anger at Modernism’s murderous intent, like a child of Hera whose sole purpose was to enact matriarchal revenge.

Out of the dust of Pruitt-Igoe, out of the collapse of belief in architecture’s social program, out of the dissolution of planning and the state, out of everything that Modernism had hoped for architecture—and the world—rose Minimalism. To look at it, you might be forgiven for mistaking it for its dead parent. It has the same eyes, the same frame, the same build. It is, as they say, the spit. This, of course, is part of its curse. Minimalism is condemned to reenact the aesthetics of Modernism cut free from politics and program. Its emptiness is a statement of victory of Aesthetics over everything else. Each iteration is a victory party, a dance on the grave of what will now never happen.

Minimalism is the undead form of Modernism, animated by Aesthetics. Like Ed Gein cavorting in suits made from the skin of his victims, Minimalism is a perverted and psychotic condition. It is there every time we look at something beautifully Modern. Its simplicity, its order, its calmness, its smoothness are displayed like the severed heads on Traitors’ Gate: a beautiful warning to architecture. The real perversion? Architects willingly and joyfully enact this macabre ritual.

Though it’s not really alive, it’s all around us, multiplying with a fury. It’s there in every bathroom ever designed by John Pawson—especially those fucking baths. It’s written huge as though it were real by David Chipperfield. It swirls around in the Conran Shop. Its shadow falls over the IKEAn mass-dissemination of design. It’s there whenever you see a shadow gap. Its there when critics type the word “elegant.” It haunts us all.

Minimalism then is the erection of false history, a zombie culture, a hollow laugh at the failure of architecture. A kind of anti-architecture, replaying Modernism’s tropes to opposite ends. Not utopia, not social progress, not a better world, but an ultimate and mesmerizing nihilism.

Like all the undead, we can suppose its only real desire is for death’s release, for an end, for its animation by an external agent to cease. Which is where we started: an obituary for something that isn’t dead, but was never alive, yet is everywhere, all the time. Maybe we should write obituaries where once we wrote manifestos.

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  1. Albert says:

    Fantastic style. Fantastic sarcasm.
    What a powerful piece… So original and freaking entertaining.
    Enjoyed it enormously. Yeah… let’s bury few bastards that are still alive… Why not?
    Minimalism is not the only candidate…

  2. Duane says:

    I agree with you quite precisely on Minimalism being zombie-fied Modernism. It is the austere corpse of the deracinated High Modernism of Mies et al.

    An intriguing and useful counterpoint is that in dying, Modernism begat not only Minimalism, the corpus without the animating faculties of reason; but also High Tech.

    High Tech was the missing reasoning faculty, disillusioned by the failure of its flesh and floating into the abstract world of function and expression, overtly screaming its logical correctness. High Tech is not about allowing the advance technology into the future, but rather flash-freezing it today and fetishizing the -expression- of the technological prowess of the designer and builder.

    Modernism collapsed then because its (long destroyed) theoretical foundations were found to be completely debased. Minimalism was the solipsistic acceptance of this, and the abdication of Modernism’s sense of social responsibility (for what that was worth by the 70’s).
    High Tech instead sought to establish a new teleology, to build new theoretical foundations, and keep up what the idealists who established it considered Modernism’s “good fight.”

    The founders of both were unable to deal with the uncertainties of the absence of the grand narratives that Modernism (originally) had supplied, and in their own ways tried to reshape themselves to the post-Modern world.

  3. It would be good if you gave an example. Seems to me that the dominant avant-gardist style (for example, Gehry and Libeskind) is much too fussy to be called minimalism.

  4. A Person says:

    I think I would disagree.

    Minimalism was never a period in the first place. It was only a collective effort of artists who were striving to reduce nuances of ‘noise’ in their works. Many terms were given to try and label those works, the one that stuck was the term Minimalism.

    The artists, who so called started the period themselves never coined the term Minimalism, neither did they assert its existence.

    So, how is Minimalism even dead or alive? We don’t even know what it is!

  5. Ross says:

    Well said.
    Minimalism (as deprogrammed, aesthetic modernism) has been rampant over the last couple of decades. The technical sophistication of the present-day construction industry allows the achievement of the modernist aesthetic that was not available to Mies et al in the 20s. The uncoupling of the aesthetic from the ideology of modernism makes it an easy commodity to sell.
    That said, the linkage between the ideology and the form of modernism was never intrinsic and therefore easy to break.

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