Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.
Is there any objective reason that unsophisticated tastes tend to favor complication? (I use the word complication here, in contrast to the now over-used, “Complexity“, a word which ought to be earned as it’s learned.) I think the answer is yes. Complication is where inexperience can hide. Complexity was once a term used to describe things which improved on second or third experience, whether it was music, food, gardens, etc. Complexity meant that the secrets of a thing were not revealed all at once. Complication, on the other hand, is designed to confuse.
But recently, complexity is misused to rationalize something that’s over-done. For example, a do-nut with icing and a slice of bacon is praised by foodies because the bacon adds “Complexity”. They’re not kidding. And, whenever the needless addition of sugar is questioned, (in Beef Jerky, in Ham, tomato sauce, etc.), we’re now being told by knowing hipsters, that it adds “complexity”. If they could taste anything anymore they might realize that sugar masks flavor, reducing complexity. That’s one of the things it does best.
The phrase “architecture of taste” hints at another once useful term, (and foodie favorite), “flavor profile”. When we begin to design our tastes according to structural models we may start to see flavor profiles in concrete terms.
Consider The Arch. What makes the Roman arch a paradigm of design is not just that it does its job well, but that it’s so much more interesting than the simple post and lintel of the Greeks. Not that Stonehenge or the Parthenon are boring, but it’s a much more static configuration, and limited. The arch allowed architects to achieve heights which were not possible with rectilinear design until iron came into use. The arch, and later the Gothic, or pointed, arch so rapturously described by Hugo in “Notre Dame”, is the true genius of design, and, until the modernists returned rectilinear form to preeminence in the 1920’s, it was the ideal of the Western esthetic.
Both forms rely on stones and bricks, and a brick, as Louis Kahn observed, wants to be an arch.
These forms demonstrate simplicity in the minimalism of their structure, while providing function and beauty. They are things made as simple as possible, and not one bit simpler.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
And still, we’re lured to confusion, complication, the refuge which delights the blind, because the complexity of modern life is too often used to confuse us. As Orwell warned, complicated speech is always suspect. This is just as true of nourishment as it is of language. And, at least in part, the cause is the over-complication of our lives, made possible by technology and progress. As the old forms gave way to the new, we found possibilities which had never occurred to us. Multicultural, multidimensional, and often multiwonderful, but also, in many cases, too much of a good thing. It became harder to control our creative impulses because we were no longer bound to the same laws of physics, of tradition and so on.
And here we have two examples which show that just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean that you should do it.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius to move in the opposite direction.”
― E.F. Schumacher
As our world is increasingly being led by intelligent fools, we allow complication, disguised as complexity, to govern our choices.
Insist on a touch of genius. Simplicity is the better path to complexity.
(Next week, in Part II, we’ll talk about ways to achieve this.)