Strelka Press is a digital-first publisher of new writing on architecture, design and the city. Reviving the essay as a popular form, we publish critical writing in digital and print editions.

LESS IS ENOUGH
ON ARCHITECTURE AND ASCETICISM

by Pier Vittorio Aureli

“Less is more” goes the modernist dictum. But is it? In an age when we are endlessly urged to do “more with less”, can we still romanticise the pretensions of minimalism?

Printed book FROM €7.49

For Pier Vittorio Aureli, the return of “austerity chic” is a perversion of what ought to be a meaningful way of life. Charting the rise of asceticism in early Christianity and its institutionalisation with the medieval monasteries, Aureli examines how the basic unit of the reclusive life – the monk’s cell – becomes the foundation of private property. And from there, he argues, it all starts to go wrong. By late capitalism, asceticism has been utterly aestheticised. It manifests itself as monasteries inspired by Calvin Klein stores, in the monkish lifestyle of Steve Jobs and Apple’s aura of restraint. Amid all the hypocrisy, it must still be possible to reprise the idea of “less” as a radical alternative, as the first step to living the life examined.


About the author

Pier Vittorio Aureli is an architect and theorist. He currently teaches at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and is visiting professor at Yale University. He is the author of many essays and several books, including The Project of Autonomy (2008) and The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (2011).

LESS IS ENOUGH
ON ARCHITECTURE AND ASCETICISM

The word ‘ascetic’ comes from the Greek askein, which means exercise, self-training. Asceticism is a way of life in which the self is the main object of human activity. For this reason the practice of asceticism is not necessarily related to religion. Indeed it is possible to argue that the very first ascetics were philosophers. In ancient times the fundamental goal of philosophy was to know oneself: to live was understood not simply as given fact but as an art, the art of living. Within asceticism life becomes ars vivendi, something to which it is possible to give a specific form. In the case of the ancient philosophers this meant a life entirely consistent with one’s own teachings, where there was no difference between theory and practice, between logos and bios. Philosophers were thus individuals who, through their chosen form of life, deeply informed by their thinking, inevitably challenged accepted habits and social conditions. 

Asceticism is thus not just a contemplative condition, or a withdrawal from the world as it is commonly understood, but is, above all, a way to radically question given social and political conditions in a search for a different way to live one’s life. It was for this reason that early Christianity absorbed asceticism, in the form of monasticism. In the process, however, asceticism acquired a very different meaning. Its main goal was no longer to change the existing social order, but rather to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ: it was practised as a precondition for salvation. And yet those who embraced monastic life also did so as a way of refusing the integration of the Christian faith within the institutions of power. The origins of monasticism in the West coincide with the recognition of the Catholic Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine and the beginning of a political and cultural alliance between Church and State. Although this alliance gave the Church immense power, it also eroded its ‘underground’ identity, which was crucial for its proselytism. For many Christians, the institutionalisation of the Church put it on a path of fatal compromise and decline. Rejecting the new position of ecclesiastical power, the early monks not only chose a life of ascetic solitude (in fact the word monk comes from the Greek monos, alone), they also decided to live outside the law and the rights that defined social life. Monastic life began in the deserts of Syria and Egypt, places that gave the early hermits a cultural tabula rasa where they could start again from scratch.14 From the outset, monasticism manifested itself as an inevitable and radical critique of power, not by fighting against it, but by leaving it: the form of life of the monk was to be homeless, to be foreign, to refuse any role within society.15 While the Church, after its absorption into the apparatuses of state power, was at pains to give itself a strict institutional order, early monasticism manifested itself as the refusal of any institution and as a desire to live an ascetic life freed from social constraints.