A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Good design is as little design as possible.
Composition means, roughly, “the way a work is put together.” (See the root compose in there?) It’s a quality of art and writing that applies equally well to architecture. I want to talk about a strong composition, in which every element of the work contributes to the whole. Strong compositions have a certain elegance. If any bit is taken away, the whole edifice collapses.
If you prefer, you can also call it the Hot Dog Method of Design. (I stole this term from Deek… credit where credit is due!) Meat, toppings, bun: every part of the package is essential and everything gets used (i.e. eaten). There are no utensils, no messy fingers, no dirty dishes.
Engineers are accustomed to strong composition. They make the machines of which Mr. Strunk speaks (see the first quote above). They create bridges consisting of structural members, a surface to walk/drive on, guardrails, and often nothing else. They also design buildings, but buildings tend to have a lot of nonstructural elements, so their composition varies widely. A McMansion feels bloated because it has some fat around the edges, some frivolous or poorly-used spaces. On the other hand, an austere apartment block might be cost-effective, but it’s incomplete, missing a home-y aesthetic. It has no unnecessary parts but it’s also missing some necessary ones.
Two disparate examples of housing styles with strong composition are the traditional Japanese house and the brownstone rowhouse found in many eastern US cities. Japanese interior design embraces the rectilinear form. Furnishings are sparse but purposeful – sleeping futons get rolled up and stored in closets during the day; chairs are omitted in favor of sitting on the floor or on low cushions. Brownstones combine curb appeal with efficient layouts, stacking their rooms so they consume a minimum footprint in a location where space is at a premium.
Small spaces tend to be more fully utilized and therefore more strongly composed, but not always. I encourage you to evaluate your own living quarters for its composition. Ask yourself, Is there anything I can take away? Or am I eating a perfect hot dog?