Monday, 7 February 2011

The Tipping Point to Minimalism

Bandon Dunes 16th

While on holiday I decided that I would read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. The book not only explained how and why new trends emerge but also broke down the factors and the people required for a trend to occur. I loved the book and found myself often applying the concepts back to my own business to see if I could influence my own future.

Gladwell describes the tipping point itself as that magical moment when something begins to spread like wildfire. It eventually got me thinking about golf architecture, looking at how Minimalism was finally able to push Modernism aside and wondering at what was the Tipping Point.

The populist appeal of Minimalist courses has exploded in the last 10 years. The next generation of architects are more rooted in this style than in Modernism. That makes this trend the future of architecture for some time to come. What fascinated me in retrospect after reading the book was how did Minimalism get to this point?

My first experience with Minimalism was a trip to Columbus in 1995 where I saw The Golf Club designed by Pete Dye. While odd in places, like the use of ponds, I still loved the way it sat on the land. Interestingly, my next trip took me to Michigan to see Crystal Downs, and on a side trip I saw a new course called High Pointe which really tweaked my interest in the concept of Minimalism.

All trends begin with an innovator, someone willing to step outside of convention and go their own way. The innovator would be Pete Dye. His choices in the 1960’s were absolutely revolutionary and created the foundation for the current crop of Minimalist architects to build from. Interestingly his innovations did not create an immediate and lasting trend, but simply developed the starting point. While many trends to appear to be overnight sensations, the reality is most take time to emerge.

It turned out to be the future generation of designers who worked for Pete that would play a much larger role in developing the trend than Pete himself. While his initial work remains inspirational, his move to Maximalism (modernism to the extreme) saw most key players start their own enterprises.

Pacific Dunes 11th
The first clear sign that architecture might be in for a major shift was Sand Hills. While it was not the first project for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, nor the first minimalistic work built, it was the one that caught everyone’s attention. It received massive critical praise and was covered extensively by the golf magazines. While the architecture was refreshingly original, and the site was certainly unique, the notion of Bill and Ben finding a golf course had its own wonderful appeal creating some stickiness to the story. I’ll return to that concept later.

Every trend needs the Maven who finds the new places to go and see. The Maven in golf architecture terms is that person we trust to make a recommendation on whether we should travel to see it ourselves. We use them to make those decisions for us and often their opinions on architecture shape our opinions. While some would expect that the Mavens are the golf writer, they are not. The writer’s role is the connector. Most of the Mavens have found their way to architecture panels through recommendations of others who recognize their knowledge over their own.. They are the golfers who are far better travelled, read and informed than most. Tom Doak is the most famous of the Mavens and his book The Confidential Guide is seen by many to be the bible on the subject. Whether you agree or not with what’s written, the influence is undeniable.

Every trend needs a connector, someone who spreads the message far and wide, to help push the trend into the forefront. The connector is usually a person who reads about, hears about, or sees something they consider worthy of particular interest. They are the ones that get the message out to a greater audience through their network of friends. The golf magazines and architecture critics have long played a role, but now the internet has become far more efficient shortening the distance from Maven to consumer.

Bandon Trails 15th
No trend can happen without having stickiness. Minimalism has many elements that have made it sticky. One of the appeals of Minimalism is golf’s love for tradition and its clear connections to the past. Another is the increased playability which addresses the fact that for most people find the game too hard. Another is the increase in options which has appeal in an era where more people desire to express themselves even in sport. Lastly the costs of the game have come into question and Minimalism represents a more cost effective alternative in tougher times.

Every concept needs the Salesman. I talked about Bill Coore’s ability to articulate the vision and Tom Doak’s influence as a Maven, but the Tipping Point was Bandon Dunes. The man who made Minimalism main steam or populist was Mike Keiser. He believed in Minimalism, he believed in his architects, he believed in a different way to present the game and the average consumer bought into the concept in a massive way. He has since taken that concept onto a number of successful projects and is now considered a key Maven because of his role.

The interesting thing about all trends is while they are enjoying their success, quietly somewhere the next trend is already beginning to emerge and look for the same critical players to bring it to the forefront.

I enjoyed writing this today and hope this essay brings some interesting comments.


  1. Nice piece Ian.
    The golf world moves very slowly and only a few architects or developers have tipped.
    Why are so many newer golf courses still so unfun?
    There are a bunch of designs that have tried to capitalize on this style, yet seem to come away with only hard to maintain jagged bunker edges while the fairways and greens are still swoopy - with big artificial looking curves.
    I'd say vegetation/grasses had a big role too.

  2. Ian...I think you are totally correct. Minimalism is becoming main stream. Did anyone note Donald Trump, on his golf channel special about his course in Scotland, walking around taklling about how natural this looked and how natural that looked? Here is a guy who is a business man...not a minimalist architect by training (or love)...talking about natural golf courses. I believe it is mainstream right now. But like you said, the next trend setter is about to unleash the next trend. I actually have an idea of what it will be.

    Ian...great stuff!!