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Simplicity vs Complexity. What is the future for architecture in Japan?

The two design principles: complexity and simplicity, convey an argument on whether you chose a simple design in exchange for less functionality or a complex design in exchange for an easier understanding of your design for a larger audience demographic. The argument of simplicity vs. complexity is an ongoing discussion between designers and architects. Although simplicity seems to be the main choice for most designers and architects in the modern era, Complexity allows small intricacies and details to tell a story which simplicity struggles to match. Japan’s architecture has to be one of the most influential in the world.

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Leonardo da Vinci once described simplicity as the ‘ultimate sophistication’.

But what exactly is simplicity?

Simplicity is a form which allows information to be interpreted easier as it is straightforward and concise. This is why it is so popular now, in the modern day era full of complexity. Simplicity is often known as the holy grail of design.

One genre of design which is trending in recent years is minimalism. Minimalism is the most basic form of design as it only uses the bare essentials, focusing on the extreme simplification of a form. This can be seen in all types of media, such as music, art and architecture. On the philosophical side, simplicity is a way of freedom and Zen.

Simplicity is an idea that appears in various cultures, the most influential being the Zen Philosophy in traditional Japanese culture. The Zen philosophy is an aim to reach “Enlightenment”. This is a way of life which can be described as ‘liberation from the material world’. The Japanese used this idea of Zen and converted it in to a design philosophy. This ‘Zen’ design philosophy has had a great influence in western society and inspired the minimalist movement in the 19th century. Minimalism consists of a monochromatic colour scheme (normally black, white and grey) but often uses other saturated colours, simple shapes and lines. Minimalism surfaced during the late 1950s when young artists starting to question boundaries of various media. One of which being Frank Stella, whose “Black Paintings” exhibition in the 1959 Museum of Modern Art Show, paved a foundation for the art movement. It then flourished in the 1960s and 1970s when a stream of new fresh artists emerged into the scene.

Another influence to design simplicity and minimalism is The De Stijl Art Movement. This style of art was founded in the Netherlands and began in1917 and ended in the early 1930s. The style comprised of simple straight geometric shapes and simple primary colours. Some describe this art style is the Dutch’s answer to the decorative excesses of Art Deco. Theo van Doesburg was one of the leading painters and theorists of the De Stijl design aesthetic. He believed that art was more than just a visual experience but part of a larger, more encompassing venture.

Tadao Ando is a Japanese self-taught architect and is one of the most renowned contemporary Japanese architects in the world. His work consists of these basic materials: unadorned concrete walls in union with wooden or stone flooring. He incorporated natural elements such as the sun and rain into his designs, making his work very distinctive. He is known as an expert in the field of architecture. He has been involved with more than 150 different projects in Japan and around the world. He is a master in natural lighting. His most famous works include the Church of the Light which incorporates the sun’s light to make a crucifix on the wall, The Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima and the Teatro Armani in Milan.

Tadao Ando is one of my favourite architects as he is very different from the modern day architects and in my opinion, he is ahead of his time. To me, his design philosophy is “less is more”. I like how he uses natural light by taking parts of a wall  or a ceiling out to create a totally original design, such as the front wall on the Church of the Light where a lack of a full wall makes the wall more interesting and gives the illusion that light is coming from the cross. Same goes for the ceiling in The Benesse House where a lack of a ceiling gives the building a more open space, creating a larger and brighter room. In addition, when it rains, it fills the water feature immediately underneath. The designs are innovative, creative yet functional. An ingenious skill, which makes him ahead of his time.

I personally prefer simplicity over complexity in architecture as it looks more sophisticated and elegant. However, I do find some complex and intricate architecture such as cathedrals very beautiful as well.

Complexity might not always be a bad thing. Although most designers describe simplicity as the ‘Holy Grail’ of design, there are some pros in complexity. Complexity allows a designer to go into a lot of detail when working, allowing for small and intricate detailed designs that would look out of place in simplicity and minimalism.

The detailed and intricate design is most famously seen in Europe in their Gothic and Romanesque churches and cathedrals since the Roman Empire. There has been some speculation on where this style originated from, some people believe it was created in The Merovingian Kingdom in about 500 CE or from the Carolingian Renaissance in the late 8th century. Gothic architecture started in Ille-de-France in the early 12th century. Early examples of this type of complex design in architecture are the Cathedral of Sens and the Abbey of St-Dennis.

Complex and intricate architecture were influenced by religion and geography.  Religion was very important in the late 11th century and early 12th century which lead to the vast growth in Catholic Christianity which meant an unprecedented growth in the amount of Catholic churches.

One architect with this complex style Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in 1598 and died in 1680. He was the leading Italian sculptor of his time as well as being a major figure in architecture. His work has influenced a whole new style of architecture known as the “baroque” style which includes very intricate and detailed designs. His complex designs show a dynamic composition which evokes emotions that makes the building come alive creating a dramatic story in his buildings. This style can be seen in both his architectural and sculptural designs. He is known to be a true master of realism and emotion. His work tends to show a somewhat idealised reality through his elaborate designs and human emotion. He brings his intricate creations to life through careful details which he never neglects. This is seen in the spiralling columns of the Baldachin which spiral upwards which shows the way towards heaven.

You can see Bernini’s architectural similarities and influences in Tadao Ando’s work though his natural lighting and emotional effects. Both architects were/ are ahead of their time and both see architecture less as a way of shelter but more as an artistic endeavour.

I find the extravagant and detailed designs of Gothic and Romanesque architecture fascinating, as I feel that it tells more of a story and a design philosophy than simple modern architecture. I view Gothic and Romanesque architecture is like the ‘Fine Art’ of architecture whilst modern architecture is the ‘Contemporary Art’ of architecture. However, I also feel that it appears out dated next to modern architecture.

Contemporary Japanese architecture combines a rich mix of traditional design practices and western modern aesthetics. The dialogue between these two is present in the integration of time-honored Japanese architectural elements such as sliding doors (fusama) and modular tatami floor mats with cutting edge design and technology. Japan architecture is at the forefront of investigating questions of micro-housing in its dense cities like Tokyo where the population outnumbers the available space. This page features the work of Japanese architectural offices such as Tadao Ando and Associates and SANAA along with interviews and articles about the ever-changing architectural discourse in Japan.


Japan has a vast diversity of architecture. From the old traditional shrines, to the modern contemporary structures. The traditional architecture is mainly made from wood, with tile roofs and elevated floors. The walls were used as sliding doors which allowed rooms to be transformed into a larger space for different occasions.

Some of the common mistakes of these two design principles are needless complexity and oversimplifying. Needless complexity is overcomplicating a design without adding any quality or functionality. This problem can make a design more expensive to manufacture and also make the design seem unorganised. This is often done as a result of a complex design problem. However, some designers can get lost in the details which can over complicate the design. Oversimplifying is when you make a product so simple that it is outperformed by a more complex but similar product. Not everything can be made simple, such as organisms in our body; organisms have become increasingly more complex which allows us to be the amazing creatures we are now.

The Royal Institute of British Architecture is an architectural body for the advancement of architecture which is predominantly in the United Kingdom but is also international. Going to this gallery allowed me to see both simple and intricate architectural designs. I also got to speak to some of the architects running the gallery and spoke to them about their designs. On the first floor, there was a Chinese architecture company who were showcasing their designs of building a new work campus. On the second floor there was a German architecture company showing their concept designs. Through this experience, I was able to see different design concepts, and was able to see the difference between western architecture and eastern architecture. The German architecture seemed to be a bit more complex and abstract whilst keeping sophistication in their designs. The Chinese architecture seemed more simple and functional, everything in their designs had a purpose to tackle everyday problems such as building a little bridge so that it is easier to get from A to B.

Although simplicity is the “ultimate sophistication”, complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Complex designs can be very beautiful and portray a dramatic story, such as the intricate designs of the Romanesque and Gothic era. In a world where simplicity is the “holy grail” I personally find complex and detailed work of Romanesque architecture fascinating. Romanesque architecture has an elegance about it which cannot be reproduced in simple architecture. There are still many complicated things in the modern day, even in simple things. The complexity of the design problem greatly affects the simplicity of the final design.

“Complexity is good. The world is complex and our tools must work in that world, so they must match it”. This argument can be used against the prospect of complexity; if the world is so complex, surely we should help make the world simpler. I feel that is why simplicity/ minimal design has been one of the largest design movements in the last decade in all forms of creative mediums such as music, art and architecture. Nowadays, we see complexity as something that’s outdated. I personally prefer simple/ minimal design as it clean and sophisticated; its purpose is clear and doesn’t add any unnecessary designs.

Complexity is often blamed for the misunderstanding of users, however, confusion is the true enemy here. Simplicity wins in this matter as it is concise and needs little effort to understand but complex designs doesn’t always lead to confusion. A good design is something is something that is easy to understand and easy to use.

There are still many complicated things in the modern day, even in simple things such as planes and computers. The complexity of the design problem greatly affects the simplicity of the final design. The simple design of modern day technology such as iPhones is due to the highly complex designs on the inside of the phone, hidden from the user. The same goes for planes; the user is able to have an easy and pleasant ride where they don’t need to do much as the complex work is hidden in the front of the plane found in the cockpit.


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