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Minimalism has been a popular art movement and design style since the 1960s. In this lesson, we’ll explore the history, characteristics, and major movements of minimalist architecture.

Minimalist Architecture

Eating less food is called a diet.

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When you’re on diet, you restrict yourself to small amounts of food for medical reasons or to lose or maintain weight. When architecture is on diet, it’s called minimalism. Minimalist architecture is restricted to fewer elements to achieve the most. Here, ‘the most’ is as important as health.Proponents of minimalist architecture like Tadao Ando, Alberto Baeza, and John Pawson strove to attain the essence of architecture. Minimalist architects value empty space, formal cleanliness, and simplicity.

They eliminate everything that does not work with the program, and use a few spare essential elements to maximum effect. But, how did they come up with these ideas?


Minimalism is an art and design movement that started in the 20th century. As a concept, minimalism, not only in architecture, but also to other art and design fields – even lifestyles.

Minimalist Art

Minimalist art emerged in the early 1960s in America and introduced a new way of creating and experiencing artwork. Artists, like Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd, were inspired by Cubism and its concept of reducing the subject matter to geometric shapes. They created minimalist that focused on the most essential elements, clarity, monochromatic surfaces, repetition, and simplicity of form, while eliminating narrative and referential subjects.

Minimalist Architecture

The origins of minimalist architecture can be found in the Cubist design movements De Stijl and Bauhaus of the 1920s.

In a way, these movements provided architecture with different diets based on similar food selections.For instance, the De Stijl movement endorsed abstraction and simplicity by reducing art to its essential forms and colors. Theo Van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld applied De Stijl principles to architecture by way of a design philosophy based on functionalism, a lack of surface decoration, and rectilinear planes as exemplified in Rietveld’s Schroder House.The Bauhaus movement originated with an art school in Germany with the goals of promoting mass production and uniting arts and crafts with technology. The Bauhaus approach had close ties to De Stijl and shared the principles in cleanliness, functionalism, purity, and reduced forms.In 1947, after the Bauhaus relocated to the United States and became known as the International Style, its famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe summarized its minimalist philosophy in a trademark phrase: ‘Less is more.

‘ Less-is-more refers to reduction of form to the bare minimum of elements. It’s still used to define minimalism today.In addition to the Bauhaus and De Stijl approaches, minimalist architecture was influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. Due to an appreciation of plain and simple objects, traditional Japanese design has always revolved around the idea of minimalism and focused on adding only what is needed and removing the rest.


Minimalist architecture exemplifies certain characteristics of form, light, space, and materials along with techniques such as reduction, simplification, and unification. Minimalists consider these characteristics the ‘essence’ of architecture.

Reduction to Essentials

Minimalist architecture uses a few spare essentials to reach the essence of architecture.

This means condensing a design’s content to a minimum of necessary elements, number of parameters, and operating means that define form. Thus, minimalist architecture is a result of the elimination of the inessentials, where the design is stripped down to its most fundamental features and can no longer be improved upon by subtraction.


The notion of lessening and reducing elements to its utmost simplicity defines minimalist architecture. Extreme simplicity of form and volume, cleanliness of design, and plainness are major characteristics of minimalism.The minimalist design vocabulary emphasizes employing geometry and using basic shapes, flat surfaces; simple forms; minimal interior partitions; clean, smooth finishes; and straight components to create minimal buildings, like Alvaro Siza’s school.

Space, Place, Emptiness

Minimalism gives maximum power to architectural space.

Basically, it’s a function of space. Space in minimalism is regarded as infinite in minimalism; thus, open-plan spatial arrangements are used to create minimalist architecture.Emptiness plays a major role in minimalism, too.

While reducing the program to its essentials, architects, like John Pawson, create void spaces. For minimalists, emptiness allows space and, therefore, architecture to be seen as it exists.Minimalist architecture also involves place, or the unification between space and the context and conditions in which a work is perceived. Minimalists pay utmost attention to the physical and spatial relationships that exist between both buildings and sites and their users and viewers.

Light, Materials, Color

Minimalist architectures also involves the role of light to highlight the qualities of form, materials, and space, like in Tadao Ando’s church in Japan.

Minimalists economize light as they do for space.The use of reduction of materials is also essential. Concrete and glass are frequently used in minimalist architecture. Minimalists strive to maintain the integrity of natural textures and respect the innate characteristics of materials in general, thus leaving them raw, plain, and unaltered.

Like diets avoid sugar, minimalist architects avoid color, which is limited to just a few hues and monochromatic palettes and used only to define space. The most popular colors found in minimalist architecture include black, white, concrete gray, and glass green.

Lack of Meaning

Finally minimalist architecture is entirely self-referential and lacks meaning, holds no emotional, historical, expressive, representational, or symbolic content including ornamentation. By stripping away any personal elements, minimalist architects focus attention on the object as an object.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The origins of minimalist architecture can be found in the cubist Bauhaus and De Stijl movements and traditional Japanese architecture. It shares a relationship with minimalist art which emerged in the early 1960s in America and introduced a new way of creating and experiencing artwork. Minimalist architects incorporate the use of a few spare elements to reach the essence of architecture.As such, minimalist architecture is characterized by a combination of basic essentials, context and place, emptiness, infinite space, limited colors, simplicity, and the use of concrete, glass, and natural materials and light. It’s also devoid of ornamentation and meaning, and it holds not emotional, historical, expressive, representational, or symbolic content.

As a result, minimalist architecture focuses both the user and the viewer’s attention on the object as an object.

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