Less is Enough:
On Architecture and Asceticism

Pier Vittorio Aureli

“Less is more” goes the modernist dictum. But is it? In an age when we are endlessly urged to do “more with less”, can we still romanticise the pretensions of minimalism?

For Pier Vittorio Aureli, the return of “austerity chic” is a perversion of what ought to be a meaningful way of life. Charting the rise of asceticism in early Christianity and its institutionalisation with the medieval monasteries, Aureli examines how the basic unit of the reclusive life – the monk’s cell – becomes the foundation of private property. And from there, he argues, it all starts to go wrong. By late capitalism, asceticism has been utterly aestheticised. It manifests itself as monasteries inspired by Calvin Klein stores, in the monkish lifestyle of Steve Jobs and Apple’s aura of restraint. Amid all the hypocrisy, it must still be possible to reprise the idea of “less” as a radical alternative, as the first step to living the life examined.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pier Vittorio Aureli is an architect and theorist. He currently teaches at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and is visiting professor at Yale University. He is the author of many essays and several books, including The Project of Autonomy (2008) and The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (2011).

For many years, ‘less is more’ has been the catchphrase of minimalist design. Instantly associated with the restrained work of the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who borrowed this dictum from a poem by Robert Browning, ‘less is more’ celebrates the ethical and aesthetic value of a self-imposed economy of means. Mies’s stripped-bare architecture, in which formal expression was reduced to a simple composition of readymade industrial elements, implied that beauty could only arise through refusal of everything that was not strictly necessary. In recent years, but especially since the 2008 economic recession, the ‘less is more’ attitude has become fashionable again, this time advocated by critics, architects and designers in a slightly moralistic tone.
If in the late 1990s and early 2000s architecture was driven by the irrational exuberance of the real-estate market towards the production of increasingly redundant iconic objects, with the onset of the recession the situation started to change. Those who had previously acclaimed (or even produced) the acrobatics of architecture in the previous decade now took to complaining about architecture’s shameful waste of resources and budgets. This change of sensibility has provoked two kinds of reaction. Some architects have tried to translate the ethos of austerity in merely formal terms. Others have advocated a more socially minded approach, trying to go beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture. It would be unfair to put these positions on the same level (as the second may be more plausible than the first), but what they seem to share is the idea that the current crisis is an opportunity to do – as an Italian architect turned politician put it – ‘more with less’. It is for this reason that ‘less is more’ is no longer just an aesthetic principle but the kernel of the ideology of something else, something where economy of means is not just a design strategy but an economic imperative tout court.
Within the history of capitalism, ‘less is more’ defines the advantages of reducing the costs of production. Capitalists have always tried to obtain more with less. Capitalism is not just a process of accumulation but also, and especially, the incessant optimisation of the productive process towards a situation in which less capital investment equals more capital accumulation. Technological innovation has always been driven by the imperative to reduce the costs of production, the need for wage earners. The very notion of industry is based on this idea: to be industrious means being able to obtain the best results with fewer means. Here we see how creativity itself is at the very root of the notion of industry. Creativity depends not just on the investor finding ways to spare resources but on the worker’s capacity to adapt to difficult situations. These two aspects of industriousness and creativity are interlinked: the worker’s creativity forcibly becomes more pronounced when capital decides to reduce the costs of production and economic conditions become uncertain. Indeed it is creativity, as the most generic faculty of human life, that capital has always exploited as its main labour power. And in an economic crisis, what capital’s austerity measures demand is that people do more with less: more work for less money, more creativity with less social security. In this context, the principle of ‘less is more’ runs the risk of becoming a cynical celebration of the ethos of austerity and budget cuts to social programmes.