Written by Sebastian John Chacko
Architectural beauty has always been a topic of speculation, deliberation, and execution since time immemorial. Prehistoric architecture was an attempt at preventing early death from the elements, with houses constructed of leaves, hide, and bone (of an unfortunate wooly mammoth, perhaps, may it rest in peace). The basic design of four walls and a roof above one’s head was born. As the human race learned to alter their environment for comfort, their building styles evolved, with beauty being a new facet of consideration. Leaves and bones superseded by intricate arrangements of sticks and stones; the new apex predator now could intimidate and inspire with both skill and constructs; The Brihadeeswara Temple with the mesmerizing sculpture of the Nataraja Ananda Tandava that stirs a heavenly bliss within the depths of your soul, and The Aqueduct of Segovia, a beautiful example of form married to function, are just two among the great ancient monuments which put the architectural prowess of the growing human race on full display; we could now build higher, lower, bigger, faster, - we could do better. The Vitruvian trinity of Firmitas-Utilitas-Venustas: solidity, usefulness, and beauty were the established norm of the age. But some humans questioned the green in the blue of the eyes of architecture: “Isn’t simplicity efficient?”
Thus began the Age of Minimalism, where form follows function, and detail was subtracted for ease of construction. One of the main proponents of this style of architecture was the Bauhaus Movement of 1919-1933, a German attempt to unite mass production with individual aesthetics, the unity of all art. The movement argued that there was no need for formal beauty in a commonplace object, and structures had to be engineering-oriented, not decorative. Windows tended to be rectangles or squares, with glass, frame, and bolts being devoid of detail, intending to invoke uniformity. Buildings influenced by Bauhaus design had rounded corners, balconies with flat railings and even furniture tended to be built like the residences themselves, with round corners and visible frames.
This was in complete contrast with the existing grandiose Victorian-era designs and intricate artwork which was the complete self-expression of the artisan and the designer’s vision fleshed out in concrete and steel. They were inefficient in the monetary sense, but backed by the wealthy, the artist cared less for funds or efficiency but placed emphasis on detail and perspective. Residences like the Buckingham Palace and the Red Fort are gilded with detail on the macro and micro scale as well, representing pinnacles of their respective art styles and construction techniques.
Even after witnessing human mastery over art in stone, steel, and stucco, the evolutionary force of rationality overshadowed grandiosity. “Why can't it be simple and functional?” A prominent French architect of the 19th century, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, proposed his theory - “A rationally designed structure may not necessarily be beautiful but no building can be beautiful that does not have a rationally designed structure.” This statement is flawlessly accurate for structures like a fire station or a workshop, even in this modern age, where functionality and ease of access are paramount for normal operation. He also believed that the outward appearance of a building should reflect the rational construction of the building. However, applying this extension of his statement to the National Fisheries Board Headquarters in Hyderabad, modeled after a silver carp and gilded with glass and steel, we notice its limitations concerning modern rationality. As natural as evolution is to life, le Duc’s idea grew and flourished in the 20th century under Louis Sullivan, the father of modernism, who brought about the skyscraper blitz in the United States and beyond, forever changing the way the world looked.
Following the financial crises that shook many parts of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, money was everything and designs took on a new form: the mass producible form. Consumerism became the new norm and still is, to this date. Architecture is envisioned with a few decades in mind, after which they are to be superseded by newer designs built with cost efficiency as prime focus. This is in stark contrast to the ideology of the artisans and designers of old, who did not have sophisticated software to determine and simulate their designs, and yet their structures stand out as the Wonders of The World, not just because they continue to survive the test of time, but because there was once a time where attention was paid to longevity over cost.
The need of the future is not specifically minimalism or the revival of the styles of old: it is sustainability. Brainstorming is required to solve new engineering problems with revolutionary ideas, like the Burj Khalifa’s buttressed core which allows the tallest skyscraper on Earth to sit on soil devoid of bedrock. The best minds are being put to the test to create simple, sustainable, and reproducible designs of large-scale applications. The minimalist now starts to look for some detail, some hue in the walls of gray, some character to the ceiling with which one so earnestly holds a staring contest every night. Whether the ceiling wins, or your mental stability spins, there begins the evolution of a new design: efficient form over plain function. After all, this singular moist ball of rock is all we can call home.
Sebastian John Chacko