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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Death To Minimalism

Take away the unnecessary, untidy, and intricate and you take away a place’s soul…

Minimalism is the aesthetic language of gentrification. A friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles says he tracks the progress of the transformation not by how many white hipsterish people are in the neighborhood, but by how many houses have put up what he calls “the gentrification fence.” You’ve seen it, it looks like this:

Every time I go back to my parents’ neighborhood in Florida, another little old house from the 1920s-1950s has been flattened and replaced with one of these. It has been stunning watching the transformation of my hometown.

You can see the same thing in Manhattan, of course, which has become the playground of the international super-rich. They build themselves sleek pencil-thin towers in which contact with other human beings is minimized to the greatest extent possible. (If some meddling redistributionist city government requires them to stick in a few “affordable” units, a “poor door” can ensure the rich never have to accidentally spend an uncomfortable elevator ride with a member of the proletariat.) Every day, New Yorkers wake up to see a little less of this…

…and a lot more of this:

Jeremiah Moss’s “Vanishing New York” blog, and the accompanying book, has tracked the city’s development from a messy, historic, romantic multicultural city full of punk rockers, cheap knishes, and dive bars to a glittering corporate monoculture home to little more than condo buildings, office towers, and wine bars. (I wrote about the book for Current Affairs.) Moss suggests that there is a certain lack of “soul” that characterizes the new New York. I have the same sense, but I also find it kind of difficult to articulate what “soul” actually means.

I think, however, that we can refine our sense of what it is by looking at a particular instance of change that recently occurred in the Bay Area. Here is a recent Twitter post about the renovation of an old house in the city:

If you thought the “before” photo was on the right, you’d be wrong. That’s the new and improved version, shorn of its color, its Victorian-era architectural details, its charming rounded windows, and all of the signs that the people living in it are human.

People on social media were almost unanimous in their hatred of the change. It was an “architectural hate crime,” the house had been “Ikea-fied.” “So it went from eccentric to boring,” one person noted. They had “remove[d] all of the grit, character, and individuality just to leave it as bland and homogeneous as almost everything else.”

  • “The first house has character, personality, looks like it’s lived in and has a story to tell. The second house looks like it needs a Xanax and to be put on suicide watch.”
  • “The blue one looks fun. Like a home.”
  • “It’s like a house-vampire came along, sucked all the life out of it and left a bloodless corpse behind.”

What is it, though, that actually makes #2 so much worse than #1? Why does the word “soulless” spring so quickly to mind? All they did was paint it white, remove a few curlicues, tidy it up, add a wooden fence, and put in some more contemporary windows. Why does the change seem to “kill” the house? Perhaps it’s a commitment to historic preservation, but why does this particular bit of historic style seem worth preserving? What’s so special about a bit of scrollwork? Why should rounded window frames be better than rectangular ones? The turquoise paint, the “Beware of Dog” sign, the satellite dish, the unevenly placed planters—none of this was original. It seems as if the house has lost something that is greater than the sum of the actual changes, some kind of inner spirit.

I don’t think it’s easy to actually put the change into words. A lot of commentators used words like “soul” and “life,” but is this just a kind of mysticism? I am sure there are those (probably including the house’s owner) who would deride the reaction as mere “nostalgia,” an irrational outmoded attachment to old things because they are old. I think there is more to it than that, though. Let me show you two pictures. Here is one I took today walking around my neighborhood:

And here is the parking lot of a Target:

One of these places strikes me as much more beautiful than the other. And by “beautiful,” I don’t mean some Platonic quality that exists in the ether. I mean something that gives you pleasure just from looking at it. Beauty is kind of “objective” in this sense, in that something either does or doesn’t give you pleasure. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets pleasure from the same things, but it does mean that there are some things that give a greater number of people pleasure than other things do.

There are things you can think about while staring at a Target. It is not that there are no revelations to be found there. The processes necessary to build a Target are impressive. Cars are impressive. But for me, the experience of wandering through the French Quarter is simply very different from the experience of looking at a Target. That’s true for many other people, too, which is why we get a lot of tourists in New Orleans but you don’t get many taking pictures of big box stores. And I don’t think this is a matter of age: If you had told me that the building in the top photo was built in 2001, and the building below in 1998, it wouldn’t change my preference.

What is actually going on here? I think in part it’s the absence of this quality we call “life” or “soul.” The architect Christopher Alexander, in The Timeless Way of Building, encourages us to take these terms seriously. Alexander describes what he calls “the quality without a name,” which is the way that one place can simply feel right in a way that another feels wrong, like the before and after of the Oakland house. We might also call this quality “whole” or “comfortable,” yet it’s difficult to precisely pin down. It is the sum total of what distinguishes this:

…from this:

Alexander says that the processes by which things are built are crucial, and that one of the differences we are seeing when we see places that seem “soulless” and places that seem soulful is the difference between the kind of life that goes on in a space. In Oakland’s “Before” house, we see people who are interesting, eccentric, who have a dog and probably a little vegetable patch behind the house. They sit on the stoop in the evenings, and the dog races around the front driveway. The “After” house contains fussy people.

I do not necessarily think Marie Kondo is the Antichrist, but I do think clutter has its place. It can be a sign that a place is truly lived in and enjoyed, that it hasn’t been artificially cleansed of its most human qualities. For example, being inside my second-favorite bookstore in New Orleans (first image below) does not necessarily spark “joy.” The feeling it mostly sparks is “worrying that you’re going to topple one of the stacks and initiate a catastrophic domino effect.” But joy is not the only worthwhile emotion: Wonder and mystery and curiosity and apprehension are also the ingredients of a good life. I would much rather visit the New Orleans bookstore than one that looks like the second image below:

I just find this one so boring, so mechanically assembled, so lacking in the element of “discovery” that makes a bookstore good. One of the reasons I like Christopher Alexander’s writings is that he tells us we shouldn’t ignore these feelings. They’re important, and we should strive to build places that produce “life.”

Which brings us to ornamentation. Most contemporary architecture is entirely without ornamentation, i.e., micro-level decorative features designed to please the eye and nothing more. Have a look at the gallery of buildings whose designers have won the Pritzker Prize, the highest honor in architecture. The tendency is toward monumental shapes. You will certainly not find any gargoyles or arabesques or lattice work on the prize-winners. Ever since Adolph Loos declared that “ornament is crime,” architects have generally treated it that way. The rule of contemporary architecture since World War Two has been that there are only two options: a sleek, futuristic minimalism that is thought to capture the Zeitgeist, or a postmodern pastiche of random elements from Greek and Italianate styles (this is the aesthetic language of the rightly-loathed McMansion).

But why? What’s wonderful to me about well-placed ornamentation is that it gives viewers an endless number of things to look at. When I walk through the French Quarter, I am constantly noticing little things that I never saw before. A door knocker in the shape of an animal. A mysterious weather-beaten door with leafy lattice windows. A downspout that looks like a fish or dragon. My friend Oren and I, as we walk through New Orleans, sometimes play a game we call “spot the filigree,” in which we look for little decorative touches we hadn’t noticed before.

A filigree I just noticed in my neighborhood today for the first time

Ornamentation makes the world more interesting. It stimulates the imagination, it means that you can look at something twice, three times, four times, and still not notice things. I think the reason people find it beautiful is not because of some nostalgia for Victorianism but because it is delightful to have a world dotted with small visual easter eggs. Contemporary design deprives us of these wonderful, whimsical features, even as we have the capacity to build more of them than ever before. Why can’t you put gargoyles on a building anymore? I blame capitalism, with its relentless push for efficiency and technological progress, and its lack of interest in creating things that add unquantifiable value.

Here I think it is worth returning to the manifesto once put out by the “New Maximalists.” The Congress On The New Maximalism (COTNM), before its final session in 1980, was a fierce and controversial riposte to those who had spent the last decades stripping art down to its bare geometric essentials. I shall quote two paragraphs from the manifesto’s full 860-page text. (“Brevity is crime” was the New Maximalist riposte to Loos.)

We are told that capitalist society wishes to increase production, nothing but production. This is true. But is it production of more? No, it is the production of more of less. The ceaseless quest for profit means shaving a thing down to its bare essentials, asking the question “What is the minimum degree to which a Mexican restaurant must resemble a Mexican restaurant for people to accept that it is one?” This makes profit-seeking phenomenally efficient. It also means dullness, decrepitude, death. If a thing cannot justify itself economically, it must disappear. Wilderness, ornament—they cannot justify themselves economically, therefore they are to die.

To resist, we must praise the useless, the inefficient, the unnecessary, the magically elaborate, the circuitous route and the impractical solution. Let there be mazes, overgrowth, prolixity. Life is a fractal, not a line. Every surface must be as the Persian ceiling—with layers of complexity sufficient that one can stare dazzled for a lifetime and never be bored. There must always be an infinity of pleasures to greet the viewer.*

I don’t agree with everything they wrote, but I think there’s something to this. I see it on display in my own bathroom:

This is not actually my bathroom but might as well be, because it looks quite similar. In mine, the entire floor is white tile, not just the shower.

I like my apartment a lot, but the bathroom is a bit strange. It’s entirely white, in keeping with the contemporary style. It’s very impressive-looking, actually, and many people would say it’s attractive. But it has the downside of being both rather dull and a bit inconvenient. There is a gigantic white wall on one side (the ceilings are very high in New Orleans). And I can’t help always thinking about how much more impressive that wall would be if it was painted with some panoramic scene. We are told that all-white paintings can actually have a lot of variety. But they can only have so much variety. My minimalist bathroom is not actually very convenient, either. Because it’s all white, it always looks dirty, and because the shower has no door, water sprays everywhere. It is, in other words, designed more for appearing in brochures than for being used by actual human beings. Baths are out of fashion these days, so my bathroom doesn’t have one even though I like taking baths. Minimalism pares down to the bare essentials, and sometimes even the essentials themselves (like a door on your shower) get pared down.

I just want my spaces to have things to look at, to make my imagination wander. I’d prefer a bathroom like this or this or even this. I’d like a clawfoot tub to have feet that look like actual animal feet, because that gives it character. I think a space without flowers is a space without life. Who doesn’t like flowers?

Actually, a love of nature is very important to the critique of minimalism. When I showed the image of the balcony with flowerpots, one of the reasons it seemed to have life was because it did have actual life. Our spaces can appear most dead and miserable when they don’t have any plant or animal life, when we have literally killed every single living thing that once inhabited a patch of ground. I was at the airport the other day, and I suddenly felt incredibly pained and uncomfortable, like I couldn’t breathe. I had a strong sensation that I was in a dead place, a kind of hell where nothing lived. I could not see a single plant. Everything around me was gray, dismal. It was tarmac and hallways. It depressed the hell out of me, because I think gardens should be everywhere. (Imagine, if you will, airport hallways that were made of trellises covered in vines and flowers, a terminal that felt like a greenhouse. Perhaps some birds in the rafters, crapping on the occasional traveler to remind them that there are worse problems than a delayed flight. But no snakes, for obvious reasons.)

Nature is capable of producing patterns far more impressive than anything we can come up with, which is why our best work comes when we adopt nature’s own design principles. Just look at William Morris’ patterns:

To me, these are amazing. They show the human creative spirit at its peak, they have warmth and life and vibrancy, and they pay tribute to nature without simply imitating it. They are complex and yet simple, every part of them is in harmony with every other part. It feels like listening to music.

“Harmony” is very important in Christopher Alexander’s books, and in his The Battle For The Life And Beauty of the Earth he describes what it means to make a place where everything is in harmony. He recounts his experiences building the Eishin School in Japan, a high school with “lakes with ducks on them, shadowy arcades, secret gardens.” It was built in collaboration with the students and teachers, through a participatory process in which the design “unfolded” rather than being done ahead of time by a single visionary “starchitect.” Alexander believes that good design is about the life that inhabits a place, not abstract forms, and so the cat that inhabits the bookshop, or the feeling of delight you get at coming across a hidden courtyard, or the way the light hits your book as you sit in the window seat, these should all be of as much concern to architects as producing expressive shapes.

Alexander’s rhetoric in the book is harsh—he literally believes that capitalist design process will destroy the beauty of the planet—but seeing the serene Eishin School, with its wooden footbridge and its alleyways and its majestic ceilings and its cozy alcoves, it’s difficult not to agree that he’s onto something. When I set foot in contemporary buildings, often they feel completely wrong: They don’t feel as if they have been designed with love and care, they feel as if the designer didn’t think much about the actual experiences of the people in the place. As a result, minimalism has been ruining restaurants: Stripping down to the bare essentials means making a place much louder, and a plush, cozy coffee shop is easier to have conversations in than a spare industrial one.

Boring-ass windows. Nobody is going to derive sublime pleasure gazing at them.
Fuckin’ awesome windows. Why not just have these all over the damn place? Looking at them is fun.

I want to finish by returning to New Orleans. It’s very much a “maximalist” city. We imbibe too much, we eat too much, we listen to too much music and celebrate Mardi Gras for too long. But that’s because we value the good life. And what a good life it is sometimes. On my block, there are always musicians. I can wake up to the sounds of a lone saxophonist on the corner, or to the Dauphin Street Stompers just starting up. One of my neighbors runs a bubble machine most days, filling the street with bubbles. There are flowers galore, people out on their balconies waving to each other. As I bike to work, I might pass Doreen Ketchens or Tuba Skinny or this guy. Today, I saw an incredible one-man band. He had a guitar, drum, and kazoo, and was doing Louis Armstrong style scat singing. I had never heard anything like it. (The man isn’t on YouTube, he didn’t have CDs, and yet he was playing the most astonishing music!) A neighborhood should be like that: full of life.

The aesthetic of the buildings in New Orleans fits perfectly with the music and with Carnival. They are colorful, human scale, ornamented. They are decorated with little fountains, and have Mardi Gras beads dangling from the fenceposts. Cats sleep on the porches. It all fits together.

The above scene to me feels right. It feels like it has “the quality without a name.” The backdrop is correct for the musicians. On the other hand, we have this scene from the new New York City, in front of a Bank of America:

The musicians are just as alive. They are not minimalists (look at the stickers on the drums). Yet they are at war with their surroundings. They are surrounded by banks and condos, places without history, without stories to tell. These musicians are almost an anachronism—soon the police will surely be showing up to ask them to move along.

I think it’s obvious to most people that the minimalist overhaul of the Oakland house ruined it. It sucked the character out, destroyed the magic. But what is character? What is magic? To me, these things are of the “you know it when you see it” variety, and you see it most in places that are intricate, leafy, hand-painted, and least in a Target parking lot. Minimalism is the stripping away of the untidy organic haphazardness that makes spaces their most human. It makes spaces that are impossible to really live in, places where the first thing you put on a table makes it look like a mess, where people are actually out of place. And it’s a dead end: Where do you go from there? How many times can you paint a plain white wall, once you’ve discarded all possibility of drawing from the rich patterns of nature and the history of art? Instead of futilely questing to turn ourselves into machines, to regulate and rationalize nature rather than letting it pursue its own ends, we should embrace the filigree of life.

This is not to say that things that are spare and unadorned are inherently bad. Not everything needs to explode with a thousand colors. But what disturbs me is that minimalism is becoming the default, that it seems the future can only be minimalist, that elaborate decoration is associated with “the past” and New Orleans is a tiny obstinate holdout against an all-consuming trend. We need to move in many directions, not just one, lest the whole world become a Target parking lot.

Correction: This article originally stated that the boring house was in San Francisco. It was in Oakland, which is literally stated in the tweet I posted. Please forgive this stupid oversight.

* Yes, the New Maximalists are fictitious. I never promised that everything in this magazine would be true. 

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