The War on 'Stuff'

Over the Christmas break my daughter scanned about 12 years’ worth of architecture files so that we could reduce the number of physical files in the office. It was a monumental effort by her, in what was her first paid job. At the same time I have dramatically reduced the number of physical files, trade literature folders and samples in what has become known as ‘Antony’s War on Stuff’.

At times I have wanted to be ruthless but in reality care and thought is needed to decide what stays and what goes. So much of the material we collect embodies knowledge, function, memories and ideas that just cannot be easily replaced. However, as we move more online and more paperless, the stuff we keep and the stuff we remove help define the practice’s ethos of the future.

What has surprised me is just how much stuff we managed to remove from the office. At a guess I’d say we have removed at least 10 to 15 cubic metres of paper, folders, building samples and various materials from our modest facility. I can’t remember bringing in that amount of material, however with each removed item there has been an opportunity to think about what is relevant and what is surplus to our needs.

It’s really interesting to reflect on the slow accrual of stuff that occurs in any space and the effects – both positive and negative – that this stuff can have on the wellbeing and functioning of people.

For me, reducing stuff from the office has been liberating. It has meant we have an office that feels lighter and brighter, a place in which organisation, thinking and creativity come more easily. Everything that is in the office has a purpose and that means it is easier to function and get to work on current projects.

Watching Craig Reucassel’s War on Waste on the ABC and likening it to my own ‘war on stuff’ has made me reflect on how much stuff we need to function effectively and the role stuff plays in making architecture.

We know that houses are much larger today than ever before, and that the need for more storage and larger rooms is a direct result of needing to house the consumables we collect. It’s so easy to fill a space with stuff, however it is much harder to remove items from our physical environment.

When we have suggested to one of our children that they might want to relinquish a toy they haven’t played with in years, the cries of anguish start on cue. Try throwing out a piece of art, a photo or a favourite cassette tape that you loved back then. Our identity is tied to the stuff we own. And even if we wanted to, most of us simply do not have the time or energy to disrupt our lives in order to remove stuff.

As an architect I think the real virtue of reducing stuff is that we are able to see and connect to our environment anew while appreciating those possessions we truly value. I am not a minimalist (although I might be a bit OCD!). For me it’s about getting the balance right and leaving room for new experiences and objects to come into one’s environment.

When stuff is removed, windows, walls and floors seem less cluttered and spaces feel open, connected to the changing patterns of light. Rooms feel more flexible as there is more space try different activities. Objects take on a greater clarity as their presence resonates with increased air and light.

There is an unconstrained freedom and joy that allows for possibilities and imaginings in curated spaces. They are more architecturally satisfying, like a well-composed painting, a carefully crafted piece of graphic design or a melodic tune.

Less stuff means we can function effectively in smaller spaces and somehow, by virtue of the absence of stuff, we are able to feel more connected to what resides outside the four walls of our environment and value the things we retain along the way.