Minimalist architecture relies on clean lines, open spaces, and plentiful light sources, which prove that reducing a building to its bare essence can result in the extraordinary. Although minimalist structures may look simple, the geometric forms and exposed materials create an unexpectedly compelling experience for the viewer. As pioneering architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe put it, “Less is more.”
Minimalism emerged as an architectural movement in the early mid-century, inspired by the Bauhaus and De Stijl schools of the 1920s and Japanese Zen aesthetics. Since then, leading architects have taken this design approach and put their unique signature on it—from Luis Barragán’s colorful walls, to Oscar Niemeyer’s white curves.
Today, minimalist modernism continues to capture the imagination of architects around the globe. In cities like Baku and Brasilia, you’ll find innovative museums, churches, and houses that look as if they were plucked out of a science fiction movie. Enjoy, in chronological order, 10 of the world’s most stunning minimalist masterpieces.
Barcelona Pavilion (1929)
Mies van der Rohe was one of the first architects to build simple frameworks that prioritized the free-flow of space, which he described as "skin and bones." In 1929, the German-born architect teamed up with Lilly Reich on a project for the International Exposition in Barcelona. Visitors were confounded by the Pavilion’s long flat roof and glass walls, arranged in a continuous space that blurred the line between inside and out. Two pools of standing water added to the feeling of lightness. Van der Rohe insisted on leaving the Pavilion empty except for a bronze sculpture of a dancer, and a few pieces of specially-designed furniture – including the iconic leather-and-chrome Barcelona Chair.
Casa Barragán (1948)
Renowned architect Luis Barragán designed his two-story home and studio to be a serene minimalist haven. Unlike many modernists who rely on monochrome, he brightened his Casa with traditional Mexican colors. Barragán built exterior walls out of plastered concrete and painted some in vivid pink and orange, creating a pleasing abstract composition. In the living room, a cantilevered wood staircase seems to float up to the high ceiling. Barragán left his interiors uncluttered and added skylights and windows to allow natural light to come in at all hours of the day.
Chichu Art Museum (1992)
Japanese architect Tadao Ando wanted Chichu Museum to blend seamlessly with the otherworldly greenery of Naoshima Island. To achieve this, he designed a structure that has no exterior and sits almost entirely underground. From a bird’s eye view, the only traces of Chichu’s existence are a few outlines of squares, rectangles, and a triangle. When guests walk in, they’re confronted with tall, bare concrete walls that cast ever-changing light and shadow. Ando deliberately left spaces empty to emphasize the feeling of nothingness. He tailored the interiors to fit the handful of permanent exhibits, including a luminous space for Monet’s water lilies, and an alien-like throne room for Walter de Maria’s sculptures.
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói (1996)
Oscar Niemeyer’s bizarre architecture looks like something you might find on another planet. The Brazilian architect works with reinforced concrete, which he molds into playful, white organic curves. Niemeyer’s Museum of Contemporary Art looks exactly like a gigantic UFO, perched on a cliff overlooking Guanabara Bay. Red ramps wrap around the flying saucer, while 360-degree horizontal windows deliver spectacular views of Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. Inside, the museum’s stark slanted walls and floors form the perfect setting to puzzle over avant-garde art.
Wall-less House (1997)
In the 1990s, Japan’s Shigeru Ban designed several minimalist “case study” houses that push the boundaries of what defines a building. Perhaps his most perplexing work is Wall-less House, which takes the “open space” concept to the extreme. Ban’s residence has an entirely open floor plan—meaning there are no dividing elements, and even the bathroom is in full view. However, he added tracks for moveable panels that you can slide in place to create fluid, temporary barriers. Literally “thinking outside the box,” Ban also removed as many exterior walls as possible, relying on a single swooping curve that runs from the floor to the ceiling.
Museum of Islamic Art (2008)
I.M. Pei, the architect behind landmarks like Paris' Louvre, brought his signature simplicity to the Museum of Islamic Art. Drawing inspiration from a 13th-century mosque’s fountain, the Chinese-American visualized a pared-away pyramid made from white, irregularly ascending steps. The base extends outward and is pierced with plain gray arches: a design that’s unmistakably Islamic, but with no ornamentation. Pei placed the five-story museum over the edge of Doha’s promenade, making it seem as if it were rising out of the water. The interior is just as majestic, particularly a high domed atrium that pours light over a curving double staircase and octagonal floor.
Heydar Aliyev Center (2012)
British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid is famous for her futuristic flowing curves. One of the best examples of her distinctive vision is the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku. Breaking from the city’s harsh Soviet skyline, she turned the conference hall and cultural space into a melting white cornucopia. Hadid’s minimalist shell rises from the ground and outlines the building in sweeping waves. She also enveloped the event spaces with undulating forms; Hadid’s dazzling concert hall has curved rows that appear to flow up to the ceiling in continuous folds.
St. Moritz Church (2013)
Catholic churches are usually ornate spaces crammed with relics, but Britain’s John Pawson flipped the script. By removing all color and clutter from St. Moritz, he heightened the feeling of raw spiritual power. Established almost a thousand years ago, the German church has been ravaged by fires, bombings, and various reconstructions. Pawson re-did the floors and altar in white limestone and laid onyx over the windows to diffuse sunlight into a heavenly glow. The result is a study in pure white, broken up only by dark-stained wood pews, and a careful selection of saintly statues under rounded arches.
Museu do Amanhã (2015)
Santiago Calatrava’s Museum of Tomorrow—a collection of exhibits about science and the future—fittingly looks like a white spaceship hovering over the bay. The cantilevered roof looks like a slanted skeleton wing, with cut-out patterns inspired by the bromeliad flower. The Spanish architect surrounded the rear of the building with a long reflection pool, with the surface broken only by a Frank Stella statue of a star. Viewed through the large picture windows, it’s easy to imagine you are floating on the water—or out in space.
Museo Internacional del Barroco (2016)
Toya Ito is the visionary behind the International Baroque Art Museum. The Japanese architect’s sprawling building looks like a series of curved white concrete sails mirrored by water. At first glance, Ito’s abstract minimalism seems to have no connection to the ornate 17th-century art found inside. However, if you look closer, you may notice that the wave-like shapes pay homage to Francesco Borromini’s facades. The museum’s maze of rooms is connected by the same contrast of light and dark that fascinated Baroque artists. In the courtyard, a swirling circular fountain mimics the dramatic flow of water found in many 17th-century works.