The Voluntary Architectural Simplicity (VAS) Manifesto

Julio Bermudez
School of Architecture and Planning — The Catholic University of America

The Call

Postmodern apathy, hedonism, cynicism and relativism not withstanding, we are experiencing a fragmented and chaotic reality acted out in massively irresponsible behaviors across the earth. Our world is shrinking under the merciless assault of our polluting and wasteful habits.  Habits that come out of accepting a life in the fast lane under the mantra of more, bigger, faster, better, and cheaper. Habits that keep on failing to provide what they promise and instead deliver only more unmet needs, grief and stress. Despite the promises heralded by the rising information age, continuous scientific breakthroughs, the prowess of technological evolution, and the myth of infinite growth and rationality,  we always find ourselves returning, increasingly more frustrated, to the same ancient existential dramas born out of just being alive and trying to attain some peace, security, and contentment.  Little, if any, have we advanced in these simple matters.  Escaping this fact into the carefully crafted distractions geared to our most superficial desires and exercised through unchecked consumerism never quite works either. Worse still, we are beginning to see what some of these habits have brought us: global warming, unspoken poverty co-existing with opulent greed, violence, AIDS, terrorism, war, ecological devastation, and economic instability at a planetary scale.  Although it is hard to admit it, we ourselves have been all too often shy accomplices of this state of affairs.  Confused, distracted and overwhelmed by the neurotic complexity of it all, we feel little more than irrelevant peons, floating astray in the rough seas of 21st Century civilization.

Architecture, the art of establishing the material order of a cultural order, cannot avoid but to reflect and respond to its surrounding reality.  Not surprising, current reality is requiring architectural responses defying all past traditions.  Contemporary architects increasingly find themselves with the task of redefining architecture's purpose, technology, functionality, and aesthetics based on the needs and visions of our seemingly ungraspable culture. 

Professing architecture is no light matter in these circumstances. True professing demands that we hold a position, stand for something, make a vow in the name of a deep seeded passion for architecture, our fellow beings and Earth. Professing also requires being able to technically and competently respond to architectural challenges. Professing is where belief and knowledge come together in the here and now of present reality.  Hence, uncritically adopting off-the shelf Postmodern, Modern, Deconstructivist, and any other pre-digested style appears evidently superficial and irresponsible.

So, how are we to profess architecture facing this reality? Can we truly make a committed and caring act in which we use our architectural skills for the sake of improving whatever is trusted to us as architects?  Can we make a difference?

The Response

We take on this question professionally. And, following the two meanings behind professing, it moves simultaneously in two parallel paths of commitment and embodiment.

The philosophical path offers a voluntary and critical direction that resists the forces of today’s zeitgeist. The disciplinary path leads towards architectural clarity, sustainability, and essentialism as concrete ways to embody this resistance. The two-path road points towards a renewed aesthetics and ethics of ‘less is more’.  It encourages a turn towards the minimal, the fundamentally uncomplicated, the direct and conscious as a potent antidote to our culture of excess, schizophrenia and unconsciousness. We are talking of an architecture of presence. We will use Duane Elgin's book "Voluntary Simplicity" as a source of clarity and inspiration along this road.

Starting the journey demands that first and foremost, we do it voluntarily. We must freely chose it from within and not feel that it is imposed on us from without.  Second, this choice has to come out of some personal realization (conscious or unconscious) of its necessity.  In other words, we cannot select it as a result of nostalgia or reactionary ideology.  Rather it should grow out of our direct experience of the situation itself. “Growing-out-of” something means to have been in the midst of it and come out of it by first hand learning and effort. It signifies to embrace (and not to throw away) what has been overcome.  In having been intimate with it at one time, we have understood it well enough to attempt to transcend it without narrow-minded resentment. In other words, it is not a position arrived by intellectual reasoning or negative emotions.  Rather it is a decision founded in a concrete and personal experience of growth.

Thus, choosing simplicity grows out of our direct experience of living under unnecessary complexity. Seeking focus grows out of being tired of living in distraction.  Pursuing essentialism grows out of realizing that superficiality offers little.  And so on, the desire for clarity grows out of confusion, conservation out of wastefulness, austerity out of excess, integrity out of fragmentation, self-restrain out of empty consumerism and spending, poetry out of crude materialism, presence and slowness out of the fleetingness of a fast life, committed participation out of passive following, the minimum out of overcrowded and cluttered conditions and order out of chaos.

We will call the resulting architecture, Voluntary Architectural Simplicity (VAS). The  VAS Studio is wherein VAS is practiced by making use of basic or essential architectural principles, rules, ideas, experiences. VAS engages the hypothesis of simplicity as a critical, insight seeking, disciplinary and conscious inquiry to confront the professional challenges of today.

It goes without saying that there is something unspoken of great power that is pushing us into VAS : Spirituality. We "sense" that today's huge problems will never be sincerely addressed (and thus solved) unless we acknowledge the ultimate meaning,wholeness, or trans-personal nature of reality and all beings. While this vision does not require a divinity, it doesn’t shy away from the sublime and metaphysical either. In this sense, perhaps, our most urgent job as architects is to profess the sacredness of all space on Earth so that land development may be done with care and wisdom. The preservation, respect, and celebration of space can only come when we honor its sacred dimension. By bringing a spiritual sensibility to its fold, VAS may be able to positively affect a world in desperate need for truth, goodness, and beauty. VAS gives us the intellectual, emotional, and active space to discuss, explore, practice, and advance an architecture that fosters spiritual development by the sheer power of design quality.

Two disclaimers to end this manifesto.  First, VAS is consciously naïve in seeking to resist the overwhelming forces of our time.  It just makes non-sense to do so.  Second, VAS is not self-righteous.  Although it claims to do what is right, it does not see this path as the only or best path to address today’s challenges. It only points at one potential way of professing architecture.  It just professes, and in so doing offers, humbly, Voluntary Architectural Simplicity.

For more on VAS, visit:
VAS Studio at The Catholic University of America (2010)

VAS Studio at The Catholic University of America with architect Alberto Campo Baeza (2012)

VAS Studio at The Catholic University of America with architect Claudio Silvestrin (2013)

VAS Studio at The Catholic University of America with architect Eliana Bormida (2014)

VAS Studio at The Catholic University of America with architect Michael J. Crosbie (2015)


(c) copyright Julio Bermudez 2003-2016. All rights reserved.