Notes on Complexity

[Last updated 16. December 2022]

Robert Venturi, 1966 — Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture §

Paul Rudolph has clearly stated the implications of Mies’ point of view: ‘All problems can never be solved. … Indeed it is a characteristic of the twentieth century that architects are highly selective in determining which problems they want to solve. Mies, for instance, makes wonderful buildings only because he ignores many aspects of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent.’ […]

The doctrine less is more bemoans complexity and justifies exclusion for expressive purposes. It does, indeed, permit the architect to be highly selective in determining which problems [he wants] to solve. But if the architect must be committed to his particular way of seeing the universe, such a commitment surely means that the architect determines how problems should be solved, not that he can determine which of the problems he will solve. He can exclude important considerations only at the risk of separating architecture from the experience of life and the needs of society. If some problems prove insoluble, he can express this: in an inclusive rather than an exclusive kind of architecture there is room for the fragment, for contradiction, for improvisation, and for the tensions these produce. Mies’ exquisite pavilions have had valuable implications for architecture, but their selectiveness of content and language is their limitation as well as their strength.

Where simplicity cannot work, simpleness results. Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore.

Robert Venturi, 1966: “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” [p. 17]

The recognition of complexity in architecture does not negate what Louis Kahn has called the desire for simplicity. But aesthetic simplicity which is a satisfaction to the mind derives, when valid and profound, from inner complexity. The Doric temple’s simplicity to the eye is achieved through the famous subtleties and precision of its distorted geometry and the contradictions and tensions inherent in its order. The Doric temple could achieve apparent simplicity through real complexity. When complexity disappeared, as in the late temples, blandness replaced simplicity.

The Obligation Towards the Difficult Whole §

An architecture of complexity and accommodation does not forsake the whole. In fact, I have referred to a special obligation toward the whole because the whole is difficult to achieve. And I have emphasized the goal of unity rather than of simplification in an art ‘whose […] truth [is] in its totality.’ It is the difficult unity through inclusion rather than the easy unity through exclusion. Gestalt psychology considers a perceptual whole the result of, and yet more than, the sum of its parts. The whole is dependent on the position, number, and inherent characteristics of the parts. A complex system in Herbert A. Simon’s definition includes ‘a large number of parts that interact in a non-simple way.’ The difficult whole in an architecture of complexity and contradiction includes multiplicity and diversity of elements in relationships that are inconsistent or among the weaker kinds perceptually.

Concerning the positions of the parts, for instance, such an architecture encourages complex and contrapuntal rhythms over simple and single ones. The difficult whole can include a diversity of directions as well. Concerning the number of parts in a whole, the two extremes — a single part and a multiplicity of parts — read as wholes most easily: the single part is itself a unity; and extreme multiplicity reads like a unity through a tendency of the parts to change scale, and to be perceived as an overall pattern or texture. The next easiest whole is the trinity: three is the commonest number of compositional parts making a monumental unity in architecture.

Amy Hoy on “Simple” and “Beautiful” Tools §

Amy Hoy recently expressed the same sentiment as Venturi, with regards to the design of digital applications:

fuck ‘simple’ and ‘beautiful’ tools. the only way you can make a ‘simple’ ‘beautiful’ app is by plugging your ears and covering your eyes and singing LA LA LA LA. the real world is messy. work is messy. it’s a designer’s job to wrestle with it. not deny it.

Amy Hoy on Twitter (26. Dez. 2019)

Larry Tessler’s “Law of conservation of complexity” §

Larry Tessler’s “Law of conservation of complexity” was mentioned in an Interview with Dan Saffer:

The total complexity of a system is a constant. If you make a user’s interaction with a system simpler, the complexity behind the scenes increases.

Farnam Street — Why Life Can’t Be Simpler §

The article “Why Life Can’t Be Simpler” by Farnam Street focuses on the effects of Tessler’s law: “Removing functionality doesn’t make something simpler, because it removes options. Simple tools have a limited ability to simplify processes. Trying to do something complex with a simple tool is more complex than doing the same thing with a more complex tool.”

Complexity is like energy. It cannot be created or destroyed, only moved somewhere else. When a product or service becomes simpler for users, engineers and designers have to work harder.

Farnam Street: “Why Life Can’t Be Simpler”

People have an intuitive sense that complexity has to go somewhere. When using a product or service is too simple, users can feel suspicious or like they’ve been robbed of control. They know that a lot more is going on behind the scenes, they just don’t know what it is. Sometimes we need to preserve a minimum level of complexity so that users feel like an actual participant. According to legend, cake mixes require the addition of a fresh egg because early users found that dried ones felt a bit too lazy and low effort. By the way, this is very much a legend: the reason cake mixes without dried eggs sold better is because they made for better cake.

Jane Jacobs on the Aesthetic Problems of Sameness §

In her seminal 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” Jane Jacobs makes the case for urban complexity, generated by mixed primary uses of neighborhoods (rather than single-use zoning) in cities This is only one of her points, the whole book is worth a read: It is a heartfelt, but outstandingly rational defense of the city from megalomaniac planners and designers that care more about their grand theories than about actual observable outcomes. A timely admonition.. Her remarks on the aesthetic problems that come with sameness, which is often mistaken to mean “order”, seems applicable to other mediums as well:

If the sameness of use is shown candidly for what it is — sameness — it looks monotonous. Superficially, this monotony might be thought of as a sort of order, however dull. But esthetically, it unfortunately also carries with it a deep disorder: the disorder of conveying no direction. In places stamped with the monotony and repetition of sameness you move, but in moving you seem to have gotten nowhere. North is the same as south, or east as west. Sometimes north, south, east and west are all alike, as they are when you stand within the grounds of a large project. It takes differences — many differences — cropping up In different directions to keep us oriented. Scenes of thoroughgoing sameness lack these natural announcements of direction and movement, or are scantly furnished with them, and so they are deeply confusing. This is a kind of chaos.

Monotony of this sort is generally considered too oppressive to pursue as an ideal by everybody but some project planners or the most routine-minded real estate developers.

Instead, where uses are in actual fact homogeneous, we often find that deliberate distinctions and differences are contrived among the buildings. But these contrived differences give rise to esthetic difficulties too. Because inherent differences those that come from genuinely differing uses are lacking among the buildings and their settings, the contrivances represent the desire merely to appear different.

Jane Jacobs, 1961: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, p. 225

Later in the book Jacobs comes back to the issue of monotony, which is often created in the name of order when talking about cities as complex systems of functional order:

We are constantly being told simple-minded lies about order in cities, talked down to in effect, assured that duplication represents order. It is the easiest thing in the world to seize hold of a few forms, give them a regimented regularity, and try to palm this off in the name of order. However, simple regimented regularity and significant systems of functional order are seldom coincident in this world.

To see complex systems of functional order as order, and not as chaos, takes understanding.

Jane Jacobs, 1961: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” [p. 376]

The leaves dropping from the trees in the autumn, the interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a dissected rabbit, the city desk of a newspaper, all appear to be chaos if they are seen without comprehension. Once they are understood as systems of order, they actually look different.

This is only one of her points, the whole book is worth a read: It is a heartfelt, but outstandingly rational defense of the city from megalomaniac planners and designers that care more about their grand theories than about actual observable outcomes. A timely admonition.

Jane Jacobs on the Difference Between Art and Life §

Jacobs’ more general observations on the utopian visions of cities that are aesthetically clean, yet bear no resemblance to what actually makes cities attractive in real life are worth looking at as well:

When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense. Because this is so, there is a basic esthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art.

Jane Jacobs, 1961: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” [p. 372]

She continues:

We need art, in the arrangements of cities as well as in the other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to illuminate the relationship between show us meanings, to the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us. We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity. However, although art and life are interwoven, they are not the same things. Confusion between them is, in part, why efforts at city design are so disappointing. It is important, in arriving at better design strategies and tactics, to clear up this confusion.

Art has its own peculiar forms of order, and they are rigorous. Artists, whatever their medium, make selections from the abounds that working materials of life, and organize these selections into works that are under the control of the artist. To be sure, the artist has a sense that the demands of the work (i.e., of the selections of material he has made) control him. The rather miraculous result of this process if the selectivity, the organization and the control are consistent within themselves can be art. But the essence of this process is disciplined, highly discriminatory selectivity from life. In relation to the inclusiveness and the literally endless intricacy of life, art is arbitrary, symbolic and abstracted. That is its value and the source of its own kind of order and coherence.

To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.

Jane Jacobs, 1961: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” [p. 373]

To me, this seems to greatly capture the drive to “reduce” complexity in favor of shallow, aesthetic cleanness that can be found not just in city planning, but in any design discipline.

Edgar Morin — On Complexity §

In the face of increasing complexity, we are more than ever in need of a system of thought that is capable of simplifying without mutilating. When reality resists simplification, we have to turn to complexity. Complexity is the eruption of the disorder of the random and of uncertainty in the reality […] We all know that the future is unpredictable today, given the perpetual intervention of the new and the unexpected. And it is for that very reason that extreme complexity has a tendency to resemble a permanent crisis.

Edgar Morin, 2008: “On Complexity” (via Malte Müller)


  • Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage.
  • Morin, E. (2008). On Complexity. Hampton Press.
  • Venturi, R. (1966). Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The Museum of Modern Art.