Austerity is in the air, paradoxically as both a bitter macroeconomic pill and a beguiling architectural ideal. In this subtly reasoned and beautifully written op-ed, architecture professor and author Thomas De Monchaux reflects on the attractions and perils inherent in both senses of the word.

In art and design, and especially in architecture, austerity means modernism and minimalism: the concept, famously advanced by the architect ludwig mies van der rohe, that “less is more.” some of this expresses the obligation of any good designer to honor an economy of means, to acknowledge that architecture, like governance, is primarily the art of spending other people’s money. but most of it is a little more mysterious.


Today’s minimalism conjures a life of such intangible ease that the mere creature comforts of visibly abundant stuff are transcended. it makes a near ethical virtue out of an aesthetic practice of refusal (perhaps extending, disconcertingly, to notions of physical aesthetics in which obesity is associated with poverty and to be too rich is to be too thin). while mies and his contemporaries introduced their skinny-framed, flat-roofed, white-walled architecture in the context of prototype public housing, they perfected it in deluxe retreats like the farnsworth house.


Economically, austerity — which the germans, among others, are intent on forcing upon their southern brethren — can sound like a good idea, but might actually exacerbate the conditions it ostensibly ameliorates. one day, we might look back on cuts in public services and infrastructure during a downturn with the same disbelief with which today’s doctors recall the medieval medicine of deliberately cutting and bleeding the sick.