by Dušan Cvetković
Dušan Cvetković
Published February 18, 2021

Minimalist Architecture - All You Need to Know [The Definitive Guide]

Minimalist Architecture - How can we define it? By the words of Nicholas Burroughs:
“Minimalism is not a lack of something. It’s simply the perfect amount of something”.

Intriguing words, aren’t they?  But what do they actually mean?

Let's find out!

I think that the best way to understand the impact of minimalism on architecture is by comparing architecture to the phone industry. Phones first started with wires (telephones), they were embellished and ornamented using different colors, materials, button styles, and many more.

At some point, phones were liberated (cellphones) and became portable with numerical buttons where each number referred to 3 letters, a thick outlook and a bit heavy.

Minimalist Architecture is actually the shift in appearance phones did that made them become thinner, with a faster typing method, less buttons and adjustable font and keyboard size, simple and better looking. In other words, aesthetically appealing and highly functional at the same time.

What designers did is that they actually reinterpreted the phone design, removed all unnecessary features and only kept its “essence”. 

Minimalist Table

For a better understanding of the architectural shift caused by minimalism, take a look at the following. 

Minimalist Architecture Origin Story

Although the Minimalist movement hit its peak in the late 20th century, the simple design mindset dates back to the 1800s. As a matter of fact, the two philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau evoked this manner in their book called Walden.

Ever since the 1800s, Minimalism kept struggling under different names and movements until the 1960s when it was first entitled in the visual arts field and here’s how.

In the post-world war II era, artists, sculptors, painters and designers, started rebelling against abstract expressionism, a dominant style in New York schools between the 1940s and 1950s.

Empowered by the Netherlandic artistic movement De Stijl and the German mass production Bauhaus that started around the 1920, those artists produced their artwork using abstraction, simplicity and geometric forms as key criteria.

In that matter, one of the leading figures of this cubist-inspired art is the American painter and sculptor Frank Stella known for his black canvas equipped with geometric strips paintings called Black Paintings. 

Black Paintings

In 1965, the British philosopher Richard Wollheim assigned the term “Minimalism” as a critique for the “minimal art contents” created by the artists of that time and that’s when the term was brought into common use.

But how did that affect architecture you ask? The answer is quite simple.
After World War II, cities were highly damaged. Architects, engineers, and urbanists were looking for a way to bring back order to chaotic cities and demolish the war traces.

With the rise of modern materials (concrete, steel and glass) and the emergence of commercial consumerist lifestyle, architects, inspired by the latest artistic trends, saw minimalism as the perfect antidote to the existing urban chaos.

Minimalist architecture by the end of the 19th century, became a global aesthetic.

Minimalism: Made in Japan

Although minimalist architecture was influenced by De Stijl’s abstraction and simplicity combined with Bauhaus’ interest in industrial materials, this new simple aesthetic trend seems to be highly established around the Japanese culture and philosophy.

In fact, the Japanese culture, following the zen philosophy, the wabi-sabi, the ma and the seijaku design principles transmit their moral values into the design. You can see examples of this in many Japanese architectural firms, such as Kengo Kuma and Associates.

In philosophical terms, Zen philosophy outreaches simplicity that values the free manifestation of materials and forms within a space.

The Japanese aesthetic principle wabi-sabi is a form of acceptance of natural forms and materials imperfections, etc. Thus, conserving them in their natural essence with the absence of ornamentations or in other words, unnecessary features.

The ma, seen in design practices as large empty spaces equipped with minimal internal partitions, cherishes the large emptiness or the void which serves in the contemplation of the true essence of the design.

The seijaku provokes stillness, a stage of meditation that is often translated in design with the use of clean and simple lines which arouses tranquility, harmony and balance.

The fascinating thing is that you don’t even have to be a designer or a philosopher to understand the last stated philosophy!

Minimalist Architecture in Japan

The Japanese simplify their complex vocab in their clothes (kimonos), homes furnishing (Tatami floor carpets), tea ceremonies, Zen gardens, and more to let you easily guess that their philosophy is stated upon freedom of movement, simplicity, comfort and durability.

Minimalist Architecture Main Characteristics

Minimalism strips everything in the design down to the essence of the architecture. What is the essence of a minimalistic design you may ask?

The essence is found in the details, in the lighting, the space, the materials, the forms. All other elements that do not have a function or a purpose are to be eliminated in order to contemplate the essence and enjoy the journey. 

The essence of minimalist architecture is characterized with the following:

  • Pure geometric forms / simplicity in form and function:
  • Minimalistic houses often have simple open floor plans with clear and efficient space arrangement, minimal interior walls and a good storage area like like Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals
Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals

Photo Credit: Jeremy Mason McGraw

  • Minimalist buildings have defined regular geometric shapes silhouettes and clean lines that follow classic geometric shapes. Geometric twist is by combining multiple geometric forms and playing with scale. For instance, Tadao Ando's Church on the Water.
Tadao Ando's Church on the Water

Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

  • Minimalist buildings use simple roof profiles as well and avoid complex curves or angles.
  • Limited and plain materials: using a lot of materials is considered distracting and disruptive. Moreover, minimalist architects limit the use of materials to wood, concrete, glass and steel and get creative with the mix of textures. Peter Zumthor's Bruder Klaus Field Chapel is a testimony of how simple materials do achieve the utmost beauty.
Peter Zumthor's Bruder Klaus Field Chapel

Photo Credit: Bart van Damme

  • Monochromatic Palette: minimalist architects try to reduce distractions from the essence with the use of monochromatic palettes. Some exceptions can be noted like Mexican modernist Luis Barragán’s projects that showcase bold colors and Souto de Moura’s Casa das Histórias Paula Rego that use pigmented concrete.
Souto de Moura’s Casa das Histórias Paula Rego

Photo Credit: Manuelvbotelho

  • Neat and straight components / lack of ornamentation: like already discussed, the minimalist beauty lies in form and arrangement. Therefore, straight lines, smooth curves, and flat surfaces, are thought to be highlighted more when there are no friezes, columns, corbels, or gables. Tadao Ando's Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts building is an example. 
Tadao Ando's Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts building

Photo Credit: Aaron Dougherty

  • Dramatic lighting: minimalist architects use negative spaces in their favors to produce dramatic shadows and highlights with the use of natural or artificial lighting. For example, Kazuyo Sejima’s Sumida Hokusai Museum which is considered to be a particular genre of Japanese minimalism that exhibits white thin construction sections with transparent elements.
Kazuyo Sejima’s Sumida Hokusai Museum

Photo Credit: Suginami

  • Connection with nature: Minimalist architects often build projects that melts within the urban context using geometric forms, bare walls, and simple materials to achieve balance between the man-made architecture and the environment. Moreover, minimalist architects expand the use of glass to keep the connection with nature and use natural lighting.

Leading Minimalist Architects & Best Examples

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

He is actually the first architect one could think of when it comes to minimalist architecture. This German architect behind the “Less is more” motto, which later became a minimalist design statement, is considered to lay groundwork for minimalism. 

This architect had always established many years before the outbreak of minimalism, projects with simple framework, open space plans and modern steel and glass materials. Some of his works are Chicago’s Crown Hall and New York’s Seagram Building.

Chicago’s Crown Hall by Ludwig Moes van der Rohe

Photo Credit: Arturo Duarte Jr.

Tadao Ando

Japanese leading minimalist figure that implements traditional Japanese spirit into his designs. Ando is known for his raw material finishing (mostly concrete), simple geometry composition that showcases an interesting play of light and the integration of natural elements like water.

His philosophy is mainly based on haiku; the symbol of duality in existence. Something like the yin yang that emphasizes how two opposites complement each other such as solid and void; dark and light; stark and subtle.

As for his best projects; it’s hard to choose one or two projects that reflect the best of Ando’s work as they all feature unique touches but I’ll stick to the Church of Light and the Wabi House. 

Church of the Light, Osaka

Church of the Light, Osaka, Japan, 1999 / Photo Credit: Bergmann

This church is the master of the architectural realm. The cross is actually pierced in the wall and through the emittance of light that it actually appears reflecting an utmost form of purity.

Wabi House, Puerto Escondido

Wabi House, Puerto Escondido, México, 2016 / Photo Credit: Edmund Sumner

The Wabi house is one of the architect’s latest projects. As its name signifies, the wabi house is inspired by the wabi-sabi Japanese principle.

Moreover, the main 312- meter long concrete wall that stretches along the land to form the house is left, true to how it was constructed, with the construction markings.

John Pawson

John is a British minimalist practitioner influenced by Japanese principles and Zen philosophy. For him, minimalist interiors with minimal clutters give a sense of clarity and richness.

His designs are advocated to understand the space, the surfaces within the spaces and the volume and bring order to them. One of his key design features is the use of natural materials because they reflect aliveness.

Some of Pawson’s works are Okinawa House and Neuendorf House. 

Okinawa House, Japan

Okinawa House, Okinawa, Japan, 2013 -2016 / Photo Credit: Nacasa & Partners

This project is a luxurious holiday house that overlooks the ocean of Okinawa island. John Pawson designed a multi-sensory house that would relief his clients from their box-shaped house.

Neuendorf House

Neuendorf House, Mallorca, Spain, 1987-1989

Peter Zumthor

Peter Zumthor is a minimalist architect that highly incorporates sensorial features in his projects to stimulate the senses and achieve an overall sensory journey.

Two of his most important projects are Bruder Klaus Field Chapel and the Therme Vals.

Zumthor incorporates tactile sense in all his projects. In fact, for Zumthor, the physical touch of materials establishes a sense of place. 

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel by Peter Zumthor

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Mechernich, Germany, 2007 / Photo Credit: Wolkenkratzer

This chapel in Germany, designed by Peter Zumthor, is in honor of the local farmers’ patron saint, Bruder Klaus.

This church is an outer rammed concrete rectangular box that incorporates an internal pyramid inspired shape constructed using 112 tree trunks to honor Bruder Klaus, local farmers’ patron saint. From the interior, visitors can see a small cavity at the top that adds a dramatic lighting. 

The Therme Vals

The Therme Vals, Vals, Switzerland, 1996

This thermal pool and resort in Switzerland exploits some of Zumthor’s potential in creating a full tactile sensory experience. The architect uses different materials to create a spatial sequencing. 

Alberto Campo Baeza

Alberto is a Spanish minimalist architect that explores in his design the full potential of essential architecture using light, idea and space.

For him, light is what actually guides the people in and helps establish a connection between people and the space. Whereas space, shaped using simple geometric forms hosts inhabitants. Space is the result of ideas that combine functionality, context, form, space and construction. 

Offices for the Junta de Castilla y Leon

Offices for the Junta de Castilla y Leon, Zamora, Spain, 2011 / Photo Credit: Javier Callejas

One of his well-known projects is the Offices for the Junta de Castilla y Leon. This glass boxed wrapped by large stone walls brought back, in a minimalistic approach, some of the modernist movement elements like ribbon widows, floating slabs, and nature framing.

Gasper House

Gasper House, Zahora, 1992 / Photo Credit: Alberto Campo Baeza

The owner of this residential project wanted his house to be independent from its surrounding and muffle out the exterior noise. Therefore, the architect enclosed the project within high walls where he added the house functions and leisure courtyard.

The project had a horizontal white appeal in order for the natural light to dissipate horizontally into the building.

Other important minimalist architects working in the field are: Buckminster Fuller, Dieter Rams, Luis Barragan, Alvar Siza, Yoshi Tanigushi, Richard Gluckman, Michael Gabellini, Claudio Silverstrin, Vincent Van Duysen, etc.

I think that minimalist architecture is one of those eternal movements. Minimalism represents value more than just a simple visual design.

Therefore, it cannot be only associated with design, it is a lifestyle that transmits clarity, order and calmness.

In fact, the 20th century Scandinavian design is indeed a modern manifestation of minimalism. If you're interested in diving deep into this style, we've created a piece on Scandinavian architecture here. 

About the Author

Dušan Cvetković is a professional architect from Serbia and official Authorized Rhino Trainer with international experience in the industry. Collaborated with numerous clients all around the world in the field of architecture design, 3D modeling and software education. He's been teaching Rhinoceros3D to thousands of architects through How to Rhino community and various social media channels.