In this blog I explore the value of minimalism for many aspects of our urban lives. I draw parallels between such varied phenomena as urban acupuncture, resource-optimised engineering, consumption practices, communication and personal philosophies.
Minimalism is most famous for its distinctive clean, simple, spacious and understated aesthetics. Minimalism has influenced creative design in general, from modern graphic design, communication, interior design, architecture, the visual arts, and even user interfaces. The Design Shack identifies five traits of successful minimalist design:
Depth within simplicity
Unusual, eye-catching accents
Focused interactivity, rather than passive visuals
For web design, the Norman and Nielsen group emphasises, among other characteristics: a maximised use of empty space, limited colour palettes, hidden navigation panels, the use of grids and symmetry, and a dramatic use of catchy fonts.
Individuals, philosophy and society
Beyond its cool, somewhat cold aesthetics, minimalism is also a philosophy, an invitation to reconsider what is really important in our lives. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus describe minimalism as such:
Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.
Although minimalism is often portrayed as getting rid of all the superfluous, particularly belongings, it can aid one in all facets of life, from health and mindfulness to personal productivity and focus. It can help us make better sense of why we do the things we do, and what really matters in our lives. In terms of personal productivity, Cal Newport prescribes getting rid of all forms of possible distraction (from social media to multitasking) to achieve full, intensive periods of “deep work” and focus, akin to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s “flow” state.
Tokyo-based Fumio Sasaki dedicates his book “Goodbye Things” to minimalist living:
(Minimalism) is an attempt to reduce the things that aren’t essential so we can appreciate the things that really are precious to us… In today’s busy world, everything is so complicated that minimalism, which began with objects, is spreading to other areas as well.
Minimalist personal philosophies have been a reaction against “maximalism”, which can be translated as an over-consumption and accumulation of food, consumables, collectables, technological devices, which can be correlated with excessive waste, personal unsatisfaction, greed, addiction, poor health and restlessness, and thus with emotional, mental and physical suffering for oneself, society and the environment. Minimalism goes hand in hand with a concern for personal, collective and environmental health. This is exemplified in movements such as slow food, with its focus on small-scale agriculture, food quality, and culinary experiences; or mindfulness, which promotes self-awareness and a greater appreciation of the present moment. Overall, becoming aware and letting go of the clutter in one’s life can support forms of happiness that are based on immaterial values such as community, resilience and introspection, rather than always running after status or nurturing dependency.
Architecture, engineering and planning
Minimalist approaches have also been connected with modern (and even modernist) approaches to design (for good or bad). Quite famously, modernist architect Ludwig van der Rohe coined the phrase “Less is more”, which is widely applicable to all areas of personal and collective-organised life. For his part, Buckminster Fuller is famous for “doing more with less”, or “ephemeralisation”, thereby encouraging designers and engineers to use fewer resources to get things done. By optimising resource use, ephemeralisation is a way of reducing the ecological footprints of physical infrastructure works, industrial design and production processes. More broadly, "doing more with less" has been a prompt to use natural resources smartly so as to prevent over-consumption and waste.
Last but not least, minimalism itself can be said to have impacted urban design, planning and management. New Public Management, and more recently austerity, have aimed to do “more with less” public expenditure. In terms of prioritising urban intenventions, urban acupuncture, famously initiated by architect mayor Jaime Lerner in Curitiba, focuses on providing strategic funding to optimise returns on socio-economic investment. The plan is that by improving key nodes in the urban fabric, significant ripple effects can be triggered. Urban acupuncture made in Curitiba, however, has been criticised for lacking public engagement. Other Brazilian cities (e.g. Belo Horizonte) have used more participatory approaches such as participatory budgeting.
The urban design approaches of consultancies such as Gehl Architects and White Architects (among many others) seem to have been influenced by minimalism and a concern for resource efficiency. Compare for example the latter’s Zen-inspired Yasuragi house, and the former-industrial residential retrofit of Lilla Tellus, both in Stockholm, with their design concept of “pocket parks” - micro public parks that can provide ecosystem services in compact urban settings. Tactical urbanism, also coined guerrilla or pop-up urbanism, also resemble urban acupuncture in their approach, although characteristically more ephemeral and temporary in nature, by its virtue of deliberately bypassing planning conventions. In contrast to urban acupuncture which can help redistribute resources strategically, for example with the help of participatory budgeting, tactical urbanism seems to focus more on raising awareness and reintroducing spontaneity to place-making. Check out the Tactical Urbanist’s Guide for DIY solutions.
Conclusion: Less is (much) more
While it may seem to some of us that the triple Big Brothers of neoliberal capitalist accumulation, relentless technological innovation, and mass (over-)consumption rule our world in many respects (for better or worse), molecular physics can remind us that it is space that fills up most of what matters to us. As we are mostly made up of space, decluttering our lives and society could help us focus on the worthy and most important, and support our capacity to build a sustainable legacy for the future. Though of course we may not need to be as radical as the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who in the 4th century BC declared: “(He) has the most who is most content with the least”.
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