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Complex vs simplistic design

Simplicity vs complexity in design

Architecture craves imagination. When presented with a complex problem to overcome, an architect will always be tempted to create a solution to match it. However, although this gives rise to remarkable design, it doesn’t always produce a worthy building.

Complexity in design is valuable since it is more marketable; it sells to a demanding audience who see their buildings as requiring it. And although it might seem counterintuitive, complex designs are easier to produce, since they require less of the stringent, repetitive editing that a simple one might need. Does simple beat complex – or is it possible to strike a balance?

Understanding simplicity

Vittorio Gregotti explains:

“A building is simple not because its shapes conform to elementary geometry, not because all of it is immediately visible, or because the logic is evident in its connections, but because all its parts voice their necessity, both reciprocally and with respect to the meaning of the specific architectural solution.”

When a client hears “simplicity”, their minds automatically move toward the elementary geometry Gregotti mentions. However, this isn’t necessarily – or even often – the case. A simple design is one that is easy to communicate to a contractor and a client. It is also more straightforward to build, with far fewer chances for mistakes to be made or for oversight to miss a flaw. Finally, a simple design is also much easier to make changes to. It is able to literally evolve with the problem.

A key to simple design is to think about the short-term, while leaving space for a design to incorporate changes at a later date. Considering the enormous challenges presented by a changing climate and living environment, designers might be tempted (or even encouraged) to think about how to make a building ‘future-proof’, leading to cases of over-engineering in the belief that the future will vindicate the design.

Complexity as a mask

Writing for InfoQ, Brandon Bryson is scathing about overly-complex design:

“Complexity can be used to add more perceived value to a solution, display a designer’s cleverness, prove a highly capable designer’s talent, hide a less-capable designer’s lack of talent, or provide a scapegoat in case of future implementation failure. Another friend of complexity is the corporate budgeting process. Complex designs can require a larger budget and more people, which can support empire-building. Complex solutions are more difficult to build, maintain, and evolve, requiring more people involved in all those aspects.”

We can also apply these concepts when we think about smaller projects, such as building an extension to an existing home. The client might be entranced with the thought of incorporating technology, such as current smart home technology, throughout.

They might also want a more complex design as part of an aspirational drive, for the look of it. However, in this case not only does the design become more complex and more difficult to build, it also puts an expiry date on it. Even so called ‘bleeding edge’ technology will eventually become out of date, yet the client will be a lumbered with an extension no longer fit for purpose.

For architects and clients alike, there must at least be the ambition to strive for a simple design, even if complexity is inevitable.



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Simplicity vs complexity in design