Issue 31, April 2016
Sydney’s most prestigious residential developments are well under construction, their architect KOICHI TAKADA has experienced both living and designing with a minimalist approach. Size doesn’t limit us, he suggests, but instead encourages us to enliven the space.
It’s a minimal life
We are surrounded with the overwhelming amount of things today, which reflect our busy lifestyles. Many of these things are also the products of ‘fast’ living. More emphasis is given to the efficiency of mass production and consumerism, looking towards quantity as opposed to the uniqueness and quality of craftsmanship. The richness of experience is often negated or eventually lost in the process of mass production. We are always reminded to improve or update in every aspect of living whether it is at work or at home.
Supposedly these things should make our lives ‘richer’ or ‘happier’ but instead, it can be quite confusing in dealing with more and more things at the same time. Living ‘fast’, the hardest thing is to get clarity of thought. While we live our demanding lives, we conveniently avoid asking a fundamental question:
“What is the true value in life?”
Minimalism is not all as negative as it may sound, but can inspire a way of life. Our imagination can be at the centre stage of our lifestyle, and more emphasis can be on ‘invisible’ experience rather than ‘visible’ materialistic outcomes. This type of minimalist lifestyle is very much inherent in the essence of Japanese culture, widely practiced today; you can experience such strong influences on minimalist living in Japanese architecture, for example in traditional Japanese Ryokan, hotels, or even when visiting the Katsura Imperial Palace in Kyoto.
The idea of ‘minimal’ is also an appropriate topic for today’s context of city living. As land values sky rocket, the size of our new future home is being redefined by what we can afford. In Japan where the majority of land is mountainous, the use of every piece of land or space is valuable.
The design of traditional Japanese houses has evolved and adapted to the demands of modern living. For instance, washitsu, the traditional Japanese room with tatami mattress and sliding shoji, ‘breathable’ Japanese paper screens, is a typical family room where you can relax, entertain guests, watch TV, eat, study, sleep, etc. It is essentially a multi-purpose room where every ‘thing’ is designed to be mobile and nothing is fixed. There is no decoration, it is just a pure space with neutral colours and natural materials. All you experience within the room is fresh air and light through the shoji screens.
In our washitsu, we had a Japanese traditional mud-rendered wall that was quite coarse and rough-textured. When the light hit the wall, it cast thousands and thousands of very subtle shadows of the texture on the wall. Over seasons, the room reacted to nature and expressed itself differently every day. It was quite an enriching experience because you were constantly connected with nature.
Then, of course, the family activities add the life, and for me as a child, this experience formed many fond memories. My mother, for example, used to practice Ikebana, the art of flower arrangement, in our washitsu. I remembered that while Ikebana was being practiced in silence, all of sudden everything came to life in the room with combinations of vivid colours of flowers, filled with seasonal scents; otherwise the room was of modest and minimal expression, ready to live.
Once you start cluttering your room with furniture, TV, audio, paintings, trophies or vases and objects that you accumulated over years, you start to lose the enriching process. When you decorate, the room adopts a very specific purpose.
Zen – connection to nature
If you are living in a limited space, such as an apartment or tiny house, you want to connect to the outdoors. Whether it is a park in front of you or a tree, a hill or the sky, you seek a sense of connection.
Once you establish the connection, then you no longer feel the limitation of your space. That’s similar to the idea of Zen that relates to the infinite. Within the confinement of a small space, you can almost enlighten yourself to the infinite association to outside. I think that this is such a beautiful ability, but you have to constantly practice to achieve the connection to nature.
Space to breathe
The main element in the concept of ‘less is more’ is the breathing space, whether it is literature, music, art or architecture.
In between text, you need breathing space to put your thoughts. Art is the same. In Minimal art, there is so much opportunity for pause. In music, it is important to have this same pause between sounds. In architecture, you put an emphasis on the void space as breathing space, too. The ‘in between’ spaces is where you can look to find infinite opportunities.
Breathing space is a very important part of our busy lifestyles, and everyone needs it to escape.
Minimal art in architecture
There is always a temptation to turn minimal art into architecture. The works of Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Carl Andre are easily imaginable in architectural forms. Although the intent of art is completely different to the function of architecture, minimal art or architecture seeks richer experience with its modest and humble expression, as minimalist artist Robert Morris says “Simplicity of form is not necessarily simplicity of experience.”[i]
During the installation of John Kaldor’s Family Collection at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney, John Kaldor first introduced me to his minimal art collection of Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella. Looking at the ‘Incomplete Open Cubes’ by Sol LeWitt, it was fun to imagine the missing elements in order to ‘complete’ the cubes. There was also a painting by Frank Stella, which has a series of stripes and looked like a deep 3D object in perspective. This work eventually ended up inspiring one of our works. At One Central Park East in Sydney, we had a challenge to turn a banal 35m long residential corridor into a pleasant journey, with a gallery like experience. The idea was to break the length of corridor into pieces by alternating light and dark stripes so that in perspective, it looked like a two-dimensional version of Stella’s painting. It was ironic that my client asked, during my design proposal, if any artwork was needed in the corridor, and I answered with much confidence, “less is more.”[ii]
How to live in minimalist design
Minimalist architect John Pawson was perplexed when people looked at his house and said “It is very beautiful but how can you live like that?” with everything hidden. Pawson, however replied, “To me the thinking is all the wrong way around. The whole point is that this is how we live, so this is what our house needs to be like.”[iii] Ultimately, the absence of ‘things’ gives you a much richer appreciation of anything that happens in the space. It is quite a powerful statement, and I also learned to listen to my clients: accommodating their way of living is first and not the other way around.
One of my clients approached me and gave me his brief to design his minimalist home in Bondi Beach. His home was to be of very modest expression, except he was obsessed with the famous view. The minimal design often requires complex thought and commitment through hard construction process. We demolished most of the cluttered and excessive existing walls that blocked the view. We proposed an eleven meter long steel beam, which was craned in from street, to support the levels of the existing building above. The end result is very simple with an open plan space. Every main room, even the bathroom has a direct view toward Bondi Beach. My client, having just arrived back from Sweden, rang me immediately as he walked into his new home. I was a little bit anxious to hear his feedback but soon his high praise relieved me, except he added, “you should have put mirrors in my kitchen cupboards, so when I am looking away from the beach and cooking I still see the view and not the design.” I had to laugh.
I was shocked when I saw John Pawson’s first book, Minimum (Phaidon Press, 1996). How could any architectural book exist without much text? There was a lot of ‘white space’, and each piece of photography told a silent story. Holding the fine textured fabric cover and indulging with the book, I felt a sense of comfort, maybe serenity and even an escape from my busy life. Everyone cherishes such a feeling or moment of being in a comfort zone. Pawson explains, “Real comfort is not about a large sofa – in my view, many things which look as though they should be comfortable aren’t at all. For me comfort is synonymous with a state of total clarity where the eye, the mind and the physical body are at ease, where nothing jars or distracts.”[iv]
Once I was invited to David Chipperfield’s Berlin office. While many beautiful objects and light timber models comforted my eyes, one that really caught my attention was seeing so many variations of white samples on their centre table. Every white had a subtly different character and it was impossible to see which white was the white. White prevails in Chipperfield’s minimalist architecture worldwide and his selection of matt or gloss white may be based on light in Milan or other light in New York, and even matching artificial white to natural white materials; all so carefully considered.
My main source of inspiration is light. The quality of light in Sydney is magical. When I finally decided to open my own office in Sydney, I wanted it to be white, or to be more precise, warm white, to reflect the subtle shades of light.
Minimalist architecture and design appeal to those who look for its timeless quality and calmness in design. One example that influenced minimalist architecture today can be found in Le Thoronet Abbey, a former Cistercian Abby built in the late twelfth century. The experience of the Abbey is highlighted by the absence of any decoration or ornament. Le Corbusier visited in 1953 and was profoundly engaged by its simplicity, “the light and the shadow are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth.”[v] When I personally discovered the Abbey during my first architectural pilgrim to south of France, I never felt so much more presence of ‘life’ within the silence of the architecture; changing colours and intensity of light, shades of shadow, sound of air, moving leaves and flying wings of birds. Through such refined minimalist architecture, time seemed to slow down and completely disappear from one’s mind. As Father Marie-Alain Couturier wrote to Le Corbusier, it is “a place where men lived by a vow of silence, devoted themselves to reflection and meditation and a communal life which has not changed very much over time.”[vi] The timeless quality of the minimalist’s lifestyle was perhaps born.
Text: Koichi Takada
 Daniel Marzona, Minimal Art (Koln: Taschen, 2004), 78.
 “What did Mies Van der Rohe Mean by Less is More?”, Phaidon, accessed January 6, 2016, http://au.phaidon.com/agenda/architecture/articles/2014/april/02/what-did-mies-van-der-rohe-mean-by-less-is-more/
 John Pawson, “The Simple Expression of Complex Thought” in El Croquis, John Pawson: Pause for Thought, ed. Fernando Márquez Cecilia and Richard Levene (Madrid: El Croquis Editorial, 2005), 7.
 Lucien Hervé, Architecture of Truth: The Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronet (London: Phaidon, 2001), 7.
 “Le Thoronet Abbey,”Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing Press, accessed January 6, 2016, http://www.gutenberg.us/articles/Le_Thoronet_Abbey