The Italians have an expression for what might only be characterized as the art of doing nothing—il dolce far niente. In this era of living in the fast lane—everything, all the time—we appear to have lost any sense of being able to leave well enough alone, find contentment in things just the way they are and simply abiding.
When RoehrSchmitt Architecture received a 2018 AIA Minneapolis Merit Award for our Shed at Crown Center project, it provided an opportunity to reflect on this quality as an approach to design and how it informs to one of our favorite projects.
The Shed began as a derelict industrial space that through time and fire and neglect had been left open to the elements for years—just another urban, industrial ruin. RoehrSchmitt was tasked by the owners of the Crown Center to come up with a plan to the make the space a useful, attractive amenity to be shared by the tenants. We were excited about the commission because we already loved the space the way it was - the way perhaps only architects love marginal, neglected, abandoned spaces. But then we were also hesitant to touch it precisely because we loved the space just the way it was. Ruins have always had something of the sublime about them, an aura of soulfulness, an inimitable realness in a world of imitations; qualities that might have easily been lost or chased away with any effort to clean them up. In short, we didn’t want to ruin the ruin.
Our efforts were primarily oriented toward identifying, revealing, and clarifying what was already there.
While we ultimately supplemented the space with a number of gestures to make it more useful and appealing to tenants, our efforts were primarily oriented toward identifying, revealing and clarifying what was already there. We approached the space gingerly, cleaning it up only to the extent necessary to reveal the patina that lay beneath the grime. Obscured by years of junk and dirt and pigeon shit there slept a latent grandeur—a brute materiality that simply needed to be acknowledged, reframed, and offered back up to the world.
On the surface we repurposed this soaring, gritty space as a linear park and garden to serve as a courtyard and gathering space for the tenants, neighbors, and friends of the Crown Center. We carved away at it here and there to allow for more sunlight. We provided a family of planters that complemented the scale and distressed materiality of the Shed, and that sketched out a series of outdoor rooms for gathering. But for the most part the work of design here was more a process of discovery than creation, more archeological than speculative, more a matter of listening than talking. Some spaces simply require a certain quality of attention to bring them back to life, and this was one of them—a space ripe for the attentions of a mature designer with the restraint to simply appreciate and reframe what already exists, resisting the impulse to alter or fill it.
This attitude may be related to Mies Van der Rohe’s dictum that Less is More, but actually reflects something more radical in that it springs from the virtually unrealizable aspiration to achieve one’s design intent by doing nothing at all. Or at least to appear to do nothing.
Rather than less is more, perhaps in this case the principal might be expressed as more relaxed less is enough. This kind of work is about paying close attention to the world around you, and inviting that quality of attention on the part of those that will experience the place. This is the work of noticing, revealing, pointing, framing, presenting, appreciating, nodding and sometimes winking. It has something in common with Duchamp's' provocative objets trouvé and ready-mades. The creation of art - or architecture - through the quasi-magical act of simply presenting something as art - or architecture.
Rather than less is more—perhaps the principal might be better expressed as less is enough.
So much effort goes into making objects and spaces that aspire to reflect the feel and texture and patina of conditions that only occur through accident, neglect, and aging—the heady brew of time and contingency—but there is really no good way to intentionally replicate the work of these forces that doesn’t ultimately appear precious and contrived. Sometimes more is necessary; often less is more; but occasionally less is just enough.