Simplicity vs. simpleness in architecture — and why you should care

Leonardo da Vinci once said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Simplicity in design calms us and somehow inspires us, not only in architecture but also in other forms of design. Apple, for example, has refined its products over the years to such a beautiful simplicity that the products have become collectibles based on their design alone.

But what does simplicity mean? Or better yet, what does simplicity not mean? Simplicity is not to be confused with simpleness. I'm not advocating for nursery rhymes over symphonies, "Sing a Song of Sixpence" over Beethoven's Ninth. No, simplicity is quite different from simpleness.

Simplicity is effortless composition, an orderliness with lyrical qualities — like in a great painting that has only enough brushstrokes to convey the idea, in which the painter uses just the right amount of color, making it impossible to imagine another stroke or another color without its ruining the composition. Great design, whether in paintings or architecture, shares this quality.

Let's explore the characteristics of beautiful architecture with simplicity, an essential ingredient to beautiful design.

Georgia O'Keefe once said in regard to painting, "Fill a space in a beautiful way." Continuing that thinking, architecture should enclose a space in a beautiful way.

Often architecture is formed by intersecting geometries, but seldom are the geometries orchestrated in such a lyrical way as the two gently sloping roofs of this home.

Many times simplicity begins with a singular geometry, one form enclosing space in a beautiful way. This cabin not only makes use of a simple geometry, but also avoids the mistake of using far too many materials that much of modern architecture makes. The architect maintained simplicity by using only the materials necessary, allowing the geometry to speak for the architecture.

An iconic image, this is the Sheats-Goldstein home by John Lautner.

The very definition of simplicity lies in this space. It's merely a floor, a roof and glass — nothing extraneous, no add-ons, no decorations. Here view and architecture marry and live happily ever after.

Jonathan Ive, brilliant designer of the Apple iPhone, among other products, once said, "Get rid of anything that isn't absolutely essential."

Phillip Johnson's Glass House certainly does just that. This iconic home has largely been photographed from the outside, which I think is missing the point


Eric Spry for,