We make theories to explain the world around us. “Theory building develops out of our need to make sense out of life.”
– W. B. Walsh, Theories of Person-Environment Interaction: Implications for the College Student (Iowa City: American College Testing Program, 1973)
The architectural theory began in the first century B.C.E. with Marcus Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture. The book discussed material properties and usage, proportion and geometry, site orientation and was a practical guide to the design and development of towns, public buildings, private residences, and infrastructure in general – all of which are issues related to architecture even today. But it was during the late 15th century, Renaissance, with Leon Battista Alberti publishing his ‘Art of building in Ten Books’, a series which closely modeled Vitruvius work, that published architecture theory gained momentum. Since then, many have published thousands of books and articles on a range of architectural topics, all with practical implications.
Unlike in natural sciences or the social sciences, architectural theories often emerge from less formalized and more individualist paradigms. Most theories are written by individual architects, which are frequently their subjective opinions, not necessarily rooted in objective research. The validity, reliability, repeatability, and application of a theory justify its merits. In order to better achieve these criteria, theories evolve over time.
Aphorisms or Maxims have been recognized as a strategic form whereby these theories are condensed and captured in the more authoritative voice of the third person. Usually, aphorisms circulate in series. Their meaning is contextual and relative to other aphorisms within the multiple and parallel series they participate in. This sets forth a series of debates arising from the invariable nature of aphorisms to propose an ‘invitation’ or an ‘opportunity to counter-aphorise.
One such series arose from the ‘Less is more’ maxim, inseparably linked to the minimalistic architect, Mies van der Rohe. ‘Less is more’ is the notion that simplicity and clarity lead to good design. It meant that less decoration, effectively used, has more impact than a lot. He believed, elegance did not derive from abundance. His buildings verified this; the German Pavilion in Barcelona is one of the most revered representations of the axiom. His architecture came to be understood as the embodiment of the aphoristic statement.
‘God is in the details’ is Mies’ second famous dictum. It reveals the absolute nature of his architecture, which displays such clarity that in turn elevates our understanding and perception of his buildings. The Seagram building, built in 1958, is a perfect manifestation of this. This 157m tall office building, set back 100ft from the street edge provided a highly active open plaza in the otherwise typical New York morphology. Finding beauty in materials, bronze, travertine, marble, and glass were used in the building. Mies even designed the relation of the carefully placed windows and the vertical bronze mullions to the lines of the plaza. To preserve its crisp geometry and avoid a display of disorganization of the facade, the window shades could be operated only in three positions: fully open, halfway open/close, or fully closed.
Maxims and aphorisms invite an alternate dictum, a counter maxim. This narrates how the initiation of ‘Less is more’ saw the creation of Less is a bore coined by Robert Venturi. This became the mantra for an entire architectural movement – Postmodernism. For Venturi, this meant designing buildings that did not conform to the norms of the Modernist manifest of the 20th century. The Vanna Venturi House, designed by him, embraced this line of thinking, deliberately contradicting with the Modernist sentiments – pitched roof in place of a flat roof; solid walls were chosen over glass; the purely ornamental arch was made the centerpiece of the front façade, etc.
Architectural aphorisms often appear as titles of books, films, exhibitions, and debates. Less is more/ Less is bore was the title of an exhibition of glassware at the Brisbane City gallery in 2002 and of the 2008 annual student fashion show and exhibition in the Accademia Italiano in Florence. They also drift into other fields. The industrial design Dieter Rams was celebrated with a 2009 retrospective at London’s Design Museum titled Less and More.
The recent addition to this series of the maxim is ‘Yes is more’ coined by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. He considers conflicts of society as the main ingredients in the analytical work of creating architecture. Instead of treating conflicts of a given project as limitations, he presents architecture as “a way to incorporate and integrate differences, not through compromise or by choosing sides, but by tying conflicting interests into a Gordian knot of new ideas”.
Aphorisms preserve the discord between precision and ambiguity. It has the creative power to challenge ideologies, to express scepticism while maintaining a relationship with the poetic. The aphorism operates virally, setting forth echoes and distortions. Jacques Derrida in his ‘Aphorism Countertime’ says, “Despite appearances, an aphorism never arrives by itself, it doesn’t come all alone. It is part of a serial logic”.