Less Is More: The New Wave of Young Architecture Firms Exercising Radical Restraint

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

‘Building Tomorrow’ presents the contemporary trends in building design and the global forces driving them forward, using Architizer’s annual A+AWARDS submissions as the benchmark. The data is creatively visualized to provide valuable insights for designers, retailers, and any industry working to create experiential designs. Download the full report for free at www.psfk.com/report/building-tomorrow.

Is the era of instant icons and flamboyant “Starchitect” projects almost at an end? New research conducted by PSFK and Architizer suggests it could be. Analysis of hundreds of the best contemporary projects — now available to all architects in a free, beautifully illustrated guide to trends across the profession — shows that many firms are moving away from architectural extravagance and scale in their efforts to make a powerful statement.

In response to clients’ heightened environmental consciousnesses, architects are looking to create designs that provide more than they consume in terms of embodied energy and space. Common characteristics for these more sustainable projects include an efficient use of small spaces, a more minimal profile, and less stylistic embellishment without sacrificing comfort or aesthetics for clients.

“Simple, elemental design is a peaceful, natural response to the chaos of daily life,” says Matt Anderson, Director of Communications at Olson Kundig Architects. “The goal is not austerity or to pare back elements for the sake of doing so, but about curating the unique assets of a site or space, no matter the size or location.”

A standout example for this nuanced approach to design is slotted in between two buildings on a densely packed street in Tokyo, Japan. Designed by YUUA Architects and Associates, 1.8-M Width House proves that elegant spaces and comfortable living conditions can even be achieved on the most limited plots. As the report describes, the shifting floor plates and multi-use areas of the project “[epitomize] the vitality of the Japanese concern with staging and social aspects of architecture.”

In the United States, New York-based firm PARA Project subverted the idea of the traditional suburban house, wrapping the façade of Haffenden House in a translucent skin to create “a blank space for retreat, reflection, and writing.” The house takes cues from the Japanese trend for “inward-looking” residential projects, as the guide explains: “A bowl-shaped division separates the writing room from the reading space above, increasing indirect light for the second level and avoiding any association with the landscape on the third.”

Finally, HGA Architects and Engineers crafted a series of restrained retreats for musicians in the scenic countryside of Vermont. The homes of Marlboro Music: Five Cottages are formed from archetypal pitch-roofed volumes wrapped in natural materials. As the architects explain, “Marlboro Music is a place of great humility, generosity and modesty. For each cottage, the root of this modesty comes from its physical and spiritual form: humble dwellings constructed of common materials that are filled with light, the sounds of music and the beauty of their surroundings.”

These projects illustrate a growing propensity for understatement in architecture, and firms that are able to design with this kind of restrained sophistication have been among the most successful over the past year. While big architectural statements continue to be made around the globe, these moments of modest chic are becoming increasingly popular: when it comes to contemporary design, it appears that quiet is the new loud.