Clean lines, absence of decoration, avoidance of clutter, simplicity, and above all functionality – these are the characteristics of modernist architecture that were encapsulated in the phrase ‘less is more’. Although originally coined in Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto, ‘less is more’ is more often associated with the modernist architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, famous for his clean-lined glass and steel tower blocks in Chicago and New York City. But it was another architect, Adolf Loos, who started this obsession with simplicity. In 1908 he published a bizarre essay called Ornament and Crime. There he challenged received opinion by declaring that obsession with ornament, far from being a mark of sophistication, was rather a characteristic of a primitive stage in cultural evolution. Ornament, as he saw it, was fit for savages and degenerates, but not for modern humanity. This position was based on spurious generalisations about anthropology and culture, and was plucked from his imagination, but it resonated with the young Le Corbusier, who reprinted the essay in his magazine L’Esprit Nouveau and echoed Loos’s conclusions when he wrote: “The more cultivated a people becomes, the more decoration disappears.”
Loos gained notoriety in Vienna for his ‘house without eyebrows’, at Michaelerplatz, so-called because Loos declined to ornament the windows in any way. The building faced the Hofburg Palace and allegedly so infuriated the Emperor Franz Joseph that he would leave by the back gate to avoid looking at it. When Ludwig Wittgenstein turned away from philosophy to work on designing a house for his wealthy sister Margaret on the Kundmanngasse in Vienna, Loos’s pure modernist aesthetic was the inspiration. Built between 1926 and 1929, the Wittgenstein house is stark in its simplicity. Wittgenstein worked with the architect Paul Engelmann, himself a pupil of Loos. Wittgenstein was tyrannical in both his elimination of ornamental features – such as a false attic and parapet, mouldings, skirting-boards, architraves, and anything else that was not strictly functional – also in his obsession with tolerances and precision, which he took to an absurd degree. The immense family wealth backing the project meant that he could demand far higher accuracy of construction than would be feasible for an ordinary building project. He even designed the door handles himself rather than using an existing design. Then, at the last moment, as the builders were packing up to leave, he famously demanded that the whole ceiling in the main room be raised by 3cm. Everything had to be perfect. The purity of this vision could not be destroyed by imprecision in building. No light shades were permitted for the free-hanging 200 watt bulbs. Nothing in the finished building was superfluous or remotely decorative; nothing was imprecise. This was design pared back to function, that in the process became an aesthetic expression of purity, of geometrical precision, of balance and proportionality.
The austerity of the Wittgenstein house matched the austerity of Wittgenstein’s way of life. Famous for giving away his very substantial inheritance, and for equipping his Trinity College, Cambridge rooms with just a deck chair and a heater, the philosopher shed as much clutter from his life as possible, and even spent many months in a specially-built isolated hut above a fjord in Norway, working on the philosophical ideas that would eventually form the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Even other people were a kind of clutter for him, and he allegedly responded to a local who happened to walk by and wish him good day, “Go away! It will take me two weeks to get back to the point where I was before you interrupted me.”
Behind Wittgenstein’s preference for stark simplicity in living spaces there was perhaps more than just a Loos-inspired modernist aesthetic: something closer to the view expressed by the guru of household decluttering, Marie Kondo, that once you have removed all the unnecessary things which fill most of our rooms, leaving only those objects which “spark joy”, the result will be akin to a Shinto shrine, a pure place where thoughts too become clear. Yet I’m not completely persuaded by this. At least not for everyone. Although I’m a fan of the clean lines of modernist architecture and furniture and I’m a sucker for the sleek lines of technological design, I’m not convinced that the ideal intellectual workspace is an empty cell. Perhaps if what you want to do is meditate, then this can provide a kind of visual white noise that eliminates distraction. But as someone whose desk is always a mess, and who works best surrounded by untidy piles of books and papers, I want to make the case for clutter as a catalyst for, and not an enemy of, writing.
The idea that my desk should be completely clear, or my writing environment pure and simple, is abhorrent to me. If anyone imposed a clean desk policy on me, it would do nothing short of angering me – and I’d resist. I’m at my most productive surrounded by books and papers in my office at home, or in a café with background noise, a half-finished flat white, and people moving about. I know I’m not alone.
Kondo would no doubt tell me that I’m suffering from the sunk cost fallacy. I’ve already invested in those books and other things that fill my office by buying them, so I’m reluctant to get rid of them, even though most are unlikely to be of much use to me. Either that, or I’m a victim of the status quo bias, the widespread preference for how things are over change: that’s why I can’t work up the energy to transform my workspace. Perhaps this is true and, because of the emotional and physical effort involved, I’m deceiving myself about how well I would work if only I got rid of more stuff. But I take consolation from some of the case studies in Tim Harford’s book Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World. One of the most memorable is that of Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A temporary three-storey building made of plywood, breeze block, and asbestos to house a variety of research projects, the building was in many ways poorly-designed, and was, according to Harford, “a confusing, badly-signposted labyrinth”. Yet, despite this, it proved an incredibly fertile place for many who worked there. To mention just a few cases: nine physicists who set up experiments in the building went on to win the Nobel Prize; the first atomic clock was built there; Harold Edgerton used strobe photography to photograph a bullet in flight as it emerged from an apple there; and it was there that Noam Chomsky developed ideas that would transform linguistics.
The building was a mess, but as one of its occupants put it, it had “a spirit that inspires creativity and development of new ideas”. In part this was because a diverse group of highly-intelligent people were thrown together working on different projects and would bump into each other in the corridors, but important too was the fact that the building was easy to reconfigure – researchers didn’t need to go through complicated applications to nail something to a wall, or even to knock down a partition. The untidy writer’s office has some of these features too – the possibility of a chance encounter with a long-forgotten book or piece of paper, and no obsessive filing system where everything is in its ‘correct’ place. And, as Harford notes in his book, “a messy desk isn’t nearly as chaotic as it first seems. There’s a natural tendency towards a very pragmatic system of organisation based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on top of the pile.”
Clear desks and neatly filed papers look good in lifestyle magazines, fit with a minimalist aesthetic, and clearly work for some people; but messy desks with piles of papers and books work for some of us too. Having stuff around isn’t a crime: for many of us it is a source of creativity.
Nigel Warburton is a philosopher and New Philosopher's Editor-at-large.