Minimalism misunderstood

Sean Dudley
By Paul Albanese

Today, one can rarely read an article about a golf course without seeing the word 'minimalism' somewhere in the description. It has become fashionable in the golf world to say a golf course has a 'minimalist' design, or that the architect created a 'minimal' golf course. As with many other design strategies implemented in the golf world, there is a significant dissonance between the definitions commonly employed by golf designers, and those of other professional design disciplines. In golf course architecture the concept and manifestation of 'minimalism' is misunderstood, and inconsistent with the more widely held definition of this design theory.

Minimalism is a concept that has been used in the traditional design world, such as building architecture and landscape architecture, for many years; well before golf course architects started using the term. Minimalism has many definitions, but in the field of architecture and landscape architecture, the concept of minimalism focuses primarily on how form is manifest in the built world. A definition of minimalism, from a design perspective, relies upon how an object, whether a building, landscape or piece of furniture, appears to the beholder.

Essentially, the true idea behind minimalism has no fundamental connection with the process by which it was constructed. In golf course architecture this relationship tends to become reversed, with the concept of minimalism hinging upon the amount of material and methodology used to create the final form. Thus the approach comes to have more in common with an engineering concept than with an architectural one.

John Pawson, the internationally recognised minimalist architect, defines minimalism as: "The perfection an artifact achieves when it can no longer be improved by subtraction. This is the quality that an object has when every component, every detail, and every junction has been reduced or condensed to the essential. It results from the omission of the inessential." This definition focuses solely on minimalism as form, implying no connection with the design process itself or the volume of material used. Minimal design is achieved through elegant simplicity in form.

Nothing more.

In contrast, the typical golf architectural definition of minimalism relies solely upon the methodology needed to create the final design. This concept typically centres on the quantity of earth moved during the construction process, with no consideration for the final visual product.

This of course misses the kernel of minimalism. With proper understanding, it is clear that a golf course can have a minimal design even if millions of yards of earth are moved during the construction. Likewise, a golf course built with only a small quantity of soil moved, does not necessarily qualify as a minimalist design.

The following definition is taken from Minimalist Spaces, a book that compiles projects of minimalist spaces from around the world: "Minimalism is not only negation, subtraction, and purity: it involves the reduction of the creative process to the concepts of light, volume and mass. This austere and simple formalisation, which sometimes conceals complex technical construction, eliminates all superfluous elements and results in a clear, intense perception of the creations." A key phrase in this definition is "sometimes conceals complex technical construction," which reiterates the precept that minimal design has no essential correlation to its manufacturing process. I am always puzzled when I hear about a minimal golf course design, only to see the final product has more visual pizzazz than a kaleidoscope. Purporting that a design is minimal simply because the constructor only moved 20,000 cubic yards of earth, is a misunderstanding of the concept of minimalism from a design perspective.

In the past decade, it has been chic for golf architects to refrain from moving significant amounts of earth, and contend the design is 'minimal' due simply to this fact. Even if the golf course design is filled with 'eye candy,' which is a common reference to superfluous design features, architects often claim 'minimal' because of the dearth of dirt moved during the creation of form.

For a golf course to truly embrace the concept of minimalism it needs to use the minimum of design gestures to achieve the desired effect. For example, a golf hole that uses only one sand bunker to achieve a desired design strategy, yet cost US$1,000,000 to build, may validly be considered minimal. In contrast, a hole that employs ten bunkers to fulfil the same strategy, and cost a tenth as much money to build, despite the low cost, is not truly minimalist. When analysing architectural form, the cost and/or methodology used to create it should not be the focal point.

Golf architecture is a specialised form of landscape architecture. In order to garner a mutual respect from allied artistic fields, golf architects need to better comprehend the true definitions of the terms being used in their marketing schemes. If a golf architect truly wants to tout the fact that their design only required a minimal amount of dirt shifting, he should simply state "we did not move a lot of earth."