Modern Architecture: When Less Is More (Expensive)

'Ornament is a crime' is the 'thou shalt not kill' of modern architecture, but 'minimalism' and 'simplicity' is only for the select few.

Modern architecture in the early decades of the 20th century is all about abstention. Its tablets are engraved with commandments that say it all: the categorical stipulation "form follows function," which is attributed to the American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924 ); "ornament is a crime" - the "Thou shalt not kill" of modern architecture, which was coined by the Austro-Hungarian architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933 ) and does not leave much room for discussion; and the copywriter's quip "less is more," which came to be associated with the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and sums up a complete worldview in three words.

Most modern architectural movements were born on the knees of these commandments: neo-objectivism, functionalism, purism, brutalism. All obeyed the categorical order to avoid the unnecessary and the excessive, the decorative, the false and the stylized, and to stick solely to the utilitarian and the necessary, the minimalist, the direct and the real - not as a new aesthetic for its own sake or as a matter of personal taste, but rather as a moral and social stance, an architectural expression of the modern zeitgeist and of the new circumstances that had arisen in all areas of life. On the brink of the Machine Age and mass society, they readied the ground for industrialized, cheaper construction, and thus for providing everyone with a suitable roof over his head.

After the tablets were shattered in a different cultural and political climate; and after the stringent commandments - which are linked chronologically - became the butt of harsh postmodern critique, in part well-grounded, and also of ridicule and mockery ("less is boring" is one of many riffs on the original ); and after all the prohibitions were dumped out of the bottle in a wild, loud, ostentatious and cynical postmodern bacchanalia - after all this, the current generation has been rediscovering that era of wonderful restraint and simplicity, only to discover that this river, too, is one that you can't step into twice.

Without ideological justification and social policy, abstention is mainly just an external characteristic of "style" that runs completely counter to the words of the so-called prophets. The embrace of Modernism, be it in the preservation of buildings that have architectural value, the recycling of buildings for reuse, or new construction in the styles of the period, belongs more to processes of gentrification and turning properties into real estate than to an effort to find suitable and affordable housing solutions. "Minimalism" and "simplicity" today are the bon ton of high-end architects and kitchen designers for the richest one-thousandth of the population, and "less" is not "more," but rather much more expensive.

As seen through the lens of time, another question is to what extent the formulators of the original commandments were themselves loyal to the principles of their credo, and to what extent did they enlist them in addressing the problems, plights, needs and conditions that the 20th century posed. To ask this question, however, is not to reject the commandments and the utopian horizon they created.

The commandment "form follows function," which is ascribed to Sullivan, was first mentioned in an article he wrote in 1896 about office towers. It sums up a new worldview that championed the primacy of practical considerations over ready-made stylistic dictates. Sullivan, a key player in the Chicago School and one of the founding fathers of modern architecture and the American skyscraper, was among the first to adopt the newly invented steel skeleton, and he believed that a building should reflect its construction technology and structural truth.

Sullivan himself did not live up to his word. The steel skeleton in most of the buildings he designed was ornamented with richly-stylized decorations, and their erection cost more than conventional construction. He designed for banks and commercial firms at the dawn of American capitalism, not for the needy. His works in his final years, bank buildings in various Midwestern American states, were dubbed Sullivan's "jewel boxes" thanks to their abundant ornamentation.

Adolf Loos' 1908 essay titled "Ornament and Crime," from whence came the commandment "ornament is a crime," is the harshest indictment of ornamentation of that era, and unquestionably the "Thou shalt not kill" of architecture. It reaches its apex in Loos' own works - which could not be more abstemious in their simplicity, avoidance of anything unnecessary and rejection of any aestheticization or "style" - and in his writings, which ran as short columns in daily newspapers and journals in Vienna from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1930s. Almost all his teachings were gathered in the book "Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays by Adolf Loos, 1897-1900" (the MIT Press ).

But Loos' radically simple works were designed for the haute bourgeoisie (Villa Muller in Prague, designed in 1930 for a wealthy industrialist, is a typical example ), not necessarily for the lower classes. When simplicity did reach these classes, it generally became shabbiness.

Loos also believed in the supremacy of Western culture, which he viewed as culture itself. Ornament is a crime and harms cultural progress, he wrote. He was prepared to suffer, as he put it, ornamentation in children or African tribesmen, but "What is natural to the Papuan and the child is a symptom of degeneracy in the modern adult."

Simplicity as ostentation

The less-is-more commandment's most elegant tour de force is undoubtedly the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, Manhattan, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in the 1950s for the Canadian distillery owned by Samuel Bronfman. The building, in the International Style, is a plain rectangular prism that encompasses a clear and simple design multiplied by 38 floors of office space covering 46,000 square meters, all wrapped in glass curtain walls - which, for the first time, ran from floor to ceiling - in an antique-gold tone, and suspended from a steel skeleton of I-beams that became legendary. The Seagram Building is indisputably the embodiment of the fourth commandment on the tablets of modern architecture: "God is in the details," which is also attributed to Mies van der Rohe.

On the other hand, the Seagram Building was the world's most expensive building per square meter when it was dedicated in 1958. And at the time, despite its spectacular simplicity, it was considered ostentatious in view of the postwar social distress and anxieties, as the architectural historian Benjamin Flowers noted in a 2007 article about the building. Simplicity and minimalism are not necessarily synonymous with modesty. The building was expensive because of the meticulous attention paid to every last detail; because of the valuable materials (primarily the bronze coverings on the steel skeleton ); and because it utilized only a small fraction of the lot for construction while allowing a piece of real estate that was worth its weight in gold to go to shocking waste, solely in order to achieve dramatic urban choreography, as befits a temple of corporate architecture and capitalist spirit.

To a great extent, the building that architect Dov Karmi designed for the Histadrut labor federation's executive committee, which is located on Arlosoroff Street in Tel Aviv, is the socialist and brutalist Israeli version of the corporate, capitalist and elegant American Seagram Building. Both were built in the same period and became icons.

The Histadrut building "is a symbol that epitomizes an era whose vision and aspirations are embodied in its proud but solid stance," wrote architect Ram Karmi, Dov's son, in his 2001 book "Lyrical Architecture." He went on to make a connection between the architectural order of the building and an "egalitarian social climate," and between them and the persona of that generation's leader, David Ben-Gurion, in khaki pants and a white shirt, "the collar of which is unaffectedly open."

As irony would have it, it was Ben-Gurion himself, one of the executive committee's founders and its first general secretary, who debunked the myth in real time. In a speech he delivered on the day the building was dedicated in July 1953, in the heyday of rationing and immigrant absorption camps, he praised the organization's ascetic and humble past in a meager rented room in Jerusalem, where the members either bedded down on the floor or a bench, and felt it behooved him, as was his wont, to spoil the joyous dedication ceremony for the building by saying: "If I had remained a member of the executive committee to this day, you would not have built this house without going to war with me." Ben-Gurion was prime minister at the time. His speech is quoted from the newspaper Davar in Zvi Efrat's monumental book "The Israeli Project."

The Histadrut building is one of a series of impressive public buildings that were built in the early years of the state and are now objects of nostalgia for an architecture of simplicity and social justice. But the facts fly in the face of this myth. At a time when the most urgent task was to build housing for hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, public buildings were accorded budgets that were "generous and sometimes ostentatious, and so it happened that, alongside shabby towns and neighborhoods that were built as slums, lavish institutions were designed, the likes of which you do not find even in many countries wealthier than Israel," as Abba Elhanani wrote in his book "The Battle for the Independence of Israeli Architecture in the 20th Century" (in Hebrew, 1998).

Elhanani also did not hesitate to point an accusatory finger at "the veteran leading architects" who preferred "to work on prestigious public buildings and were in no hurry to deal with those wretched slums." And he thereby shattered another myth.

The Seagram Building.
Getty Images