Saturday, March 3, 2012


We constantly hear the term, simple. Make it simple. Keep it simple. 

It makes sense, not only in design but also in many other facets of our lives. As complex beings, we need simplicity and thrive for it since it is so crucial to the way we perceive landscape, whether physical or cultural, and gain satisfaction. Simple can provide answers. However, from the standpoint of design, what does simple really mean? From the beginning of a design career, sitting in an intro studio, there is constantly a discussion of simplicity. Now, a few years later and with more experience, its fun (and necessary) to rethink simple. 

When I first started down the path of landscape architecture and looked at work of modernists especially, I was intrigued by the forms and lines. So, akin to many people who think they can create a modern piece of art because it's just a few lines or a few blocks of color, I figured I could create a simple, elegant and pure landscape. 

A line, therefore, is simple? 

Further, a collection of these simple lines to form a composition of space is therefore simple, right?

I suppose I would have said yes to this a few years ago. I certainly say no to it now. The beauty of simplicity is in the process of the management of complexity in a physical reduction of its being but not in its existence. Simple for the sake of simple is boring, as there is no foundation of complexity. The essence of complexity remains, though masked by an elegance of simplicity. For me, this is true not only in the design process but also in the graphical representation of design ideas. The manifestation of a graphical product, similar to the manifestation of a concept to a constructed work, goes through so many revisions and so much reduction and retooling. But, it doesn't lose its appeal or its beauty, for every piece of reduction or component of change there is a gain in appeal. The final product that is seen by those who have had no ties to it or witnessed the process, makes sense and works. Generally, because it is simple.

This notion of simple isn't about the line anymore. This is about the management and clever integration of complexity to achieve purity in form, meaning and purpose. Take for instance almost any designed landscape that is considered beautiful and successful. The landscape that is built reflects a purity and an elegance that is understood by the masses, but is only achieved by the skills and vision of the few. It requires the collection of tedious tasks from working through the big idea and the intuitive forms to making it come to life. Further, it is the collection of every minor detail and every major or minor decision along the way that make the final product something special. As much as everyone may want to praise the notion of putting pen to paper and create purely by intuition, the final product is only 50 percent of that initial stroke. That's why creating simple work isn't and shouldn't be simple in process. 

This idea is analogous to the mountain landscape - the intrigue of a natural wonder and our attraction to sex. The last one may be a stretch to some, but if you think about it, it likely will ring true. When we take in the view of the natural landscape from the top of a mountain, what we see is overwhelming but so simple and pure in its appeal. We don't think about every single detail and interaction that make it work but they are there and they all need to happen. Similarly, if we think about sex in the context of a relationship, the sex is a simple and pure act but it requires the counterparts provided by the complexity involved in the relationship on the whole. The sex is the view from the top of the mountain, the final built landscape or final graphical representation of an idea. It doesn't just happen, it happens as a result of complex interactions, balances, gives/takes, etc. 

But imagine, what if when we looked at the view from the top of the mountain we were shown every single detailed process that was taking place, or when we were having sex we were reminded of every single complex or challenging part of our relationship. If you get where I'm going here, this is the idea of design versus engineering. We need both to create beautiful places, but if engineering isn't well integrated into a visionary design, then I don't believe simple can be achieved. If during the complex phases of design development we sacrifice our initial vision to standard engineering requirements then the view from the top of the mountain won't be elegant as much as it will be filled with reminders of where we couldn't push our ideas and creatively manage complexity. For instance, what if the engineering for the High Line wasn't extremely well integrated into the design but instead revealed with clunky supporting structures and mechanisms? Small suburban streets are a perfect and constant reminder of where engineering beat out design. We have so many roads that are sized 1.5 to 2 times the necessary width for the car traffic and have greatly reduced any sort of simple and beautiful form in the suburban road network, not to mention the poor placement of numerous septic tanks in front yards.

So what is the point of this? I don't believe form is inherently simple, but instead simple form is a product of complexity. It is a combination of intricate details that need to work together and be well choreographed to create an experience that is beautiful and understood by the masses. It is about finding a compromise and cohesive blend between design and engineering. The complexity will always exist, and needs to. But beautiful design can pleasantly manage it and create simple and beautiful physical form. 

If a designed space doesn't make sense to people, why will they continue to visit, to use? Maybe because they have no other options, but as designers we should never settle for this.