Less is More

Architect Matthew Ahlberg on simplicity in architecture

“Venturing into any design problem in search of a simple solution is a daunting task for even the most experienced architects and designers.”

MH+D asks Ahlberg to tell us more.

Q. How do you achieve simplicity in your design?

A. Speaking for myself, the everyday challenge is to focus on the few best ways to get from the beginning of a project to the end with the original ideas in one piece. Ultimately, design is a complex process that boils down to answering loads of questions in a particular order. If the answers you can provide to those questions are all guided by a few simple principles, the process is far more likely to yield a result that, at its core, works to solve the problem in the most direct and simple way possible without the use of bells and whistles.

Q. When did you discover this was the best path for you?

A. I first learned this important lesson as a 20-year-old architecture student at Syracuse University. My sophomore year, our studio project was to create a boathouse for our university rowing team. After jumping into my presentation and spending 20 (very long) minutes explaining a tortured design process, which eventually led me to my final building design, my professor looked at me, reached his right hand behind his head and scratched his left ear. At first this struck me as kind of an anatomically odd way of dealing with an itch but after a few silent seconds I got it. A clever way of making a point: keep things simple.

Q. How do you stay the course of simplicity, especially when you’re on a tight deadline (you know, when panic sets in) to get a set of drawings out? Any tricks you can share?

A. The real rub is that architects and designers thrive on the enthusiasm of new and exciting ideas. In the age of social media these ideas are more accessible than they have ever been, and it’s so easy to get lost in all of the noise along the way. Trusting one’s own design instincts, sensibilities, and editing abilities to create simple solutions to complex problems is vital to making spaces that have lasting value to the people who live, work, and play in them.

A favorite quote of mine from graphic designer Tibor Kalman I keep at the ready elegantly sums up this mindset and reminds me that often the most direct path is probably the best: “I am in search of the simple, elegant, seductive, maybe even obvious IDEA. With this in my pocket I cannot fail.”

Q. Where could one see this mindset in action?

A. The Dia:Beacon, located on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon, New York, in a former Nabisco box printing factory, is my absolute favorite museum. I have taken my kids (also an inspiration) to visit this incredibly inspiring place with architectural-scale works that are almost diagrammatic versions of finished buildings. Some of my favorite works in Dia’s collection are by Richard Serra (shown here) and Michael Heizer and explore the relationship between positive and negative space.

Q. Are your currently working on a project that you feel echoes these sentiments?

A. I’m currently wrapping up a project in Harpswell. As you can see from the images and quick sketch shown, the design is very simple so as not to complicate the extraordinary site on the water. The cottage is only ten feet wide because of the tight setbacks.

MH+D is proud to partner with acclaimed architectural photographer Trent Bell on his architecture, design, and photography podcast. To hear Trent Bell’s conversation with Matthew Ahlberg, please visit trentbell.com/podcast.