Leonard Sweet and Simplexity

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Aug 04, 2012

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
Charles Mingus

Leonard Sweet has the uncanny ability to make me think.  I recently had the privilege of joining approximately 175 educators at a seminar where he was the keynote speaker.  After his presentations the one thing no one feels like doing is yawning.

This was not the first time I’ve heard him.  We had had him on our campus and each time he leaves an indelible mark.  One-on-one interaction with him is as challenging as his public presentation.

In one of his sessions he shared with us the word “simplexity,” a word he coined by combining the words “simple” and “complexity.”  As he has gotten older, he described the evolution of his perspective which, in his theology, is getting more complex, but in his personal faith, he is getting more simple.

I think everyone wrestles with these two extremes.  As the demands of life become more complex we all ache for a life that is more simple.  Simplexity.

This word reminds me of the architectural work of DeBartolo Architects of Phoenix, Arizona.  Jack II and his son, Jack III, value the place of simplicity in their complex architectural creativity.  We have on the VFCC campus ample evidence of this value in a number of our buildings.

To help me understand their approach, years ago they gave me John Pawson’s book, Minimum.  In it Pawson highlights the eleven aspects of minimalism:  Mass (the uncomplicated beauty of the unadorned wall); light (shadows and the power of transformation); structure (the discipline of mathematics); ritual (voluntary poverty and its enduring appeal); landscape (marks made by man); order (reason made visible); containment (how architecture defines space); repetition (the elements of simplicity); volume (the transforming power of proportion); essence (the irreducible minimum); expression (silence as a language).

Pawson understands Sweet’s simplexity.  He begins his book, “This book is an attempt to crystallize some thoughts about the notion of simplicity as it can be applied to architecture and art.  And beyond that, to discuss simplicity as a way of life, to look at simplicity as a means for ordering and defining the everyday rituals and necessities of existence.  It is an attempt to examine the idea of the ‘minimum,’ which can be seen as the pursuit of simplicity, as a way of thinking; exploring the possibilities that it offers for working creatively.”

I like the way Pawson advocates the “omission of the inessentials” and provides “…a chance to be in touch with the essence of existence, rather than distracted by the trivial.”

Defining simplicity and complexity is not easy.  Richard Foster speaks of “the complexity of simplicity.”  In architecture we can speak of the “simplexity” of materials, space, design, and even light and color.  In life we can speak of the “simplexity” of our use of our time, skills, resources, possessions and even our hopes and dreams.

Fra Angelica said, “True wealth consists in being content with little.”  400 years later, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The difference between a good and poor architect is that the poor architect succumbs to every temptation and the good one resists it.”

Because life is complex, simplicity does not come easily.  As an architect, Pawson says, “To achieve simplicity paradoxically requires an enormous amount of effort. To create simplicity, to reduce an artifact, an object, an artwork, or a room to its essential minimum, requires patience, and care.  It means being ready to purge all the clutter and jumble that continually threatens to overwhelm even the most modest interior.”

E. F. Schumacher understood “simplexity” when he said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

The more I ponder Leonard Sweet’s “simplexity” the more likely I will have the courage to move in the “right direction.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
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