It is evident in reading his philosophy of golf architecture that Max Behr might have been one of the early “Minimalist” proponents in his field. In this piece he wrote in 1927 you can hear a voice that has reached architects like Tom Doak and Ben Crenshaw who are strong proponents of the minimalist approach to course design. We may not all agree with Behr’s sentiments but he does express an argument worth considering as we try to evaluate the trend toward bigger and bolder artificial design elements over the last century.
The question he poses in this essay is a simple one, “What, then, is art in golf architecture? What are the values we should seek, and the method we should adopt to arrive at them?”
For the most part Behr believed that the natural elements of the land should be the guiding force in design and that architects should resist the temptation of imposing their will upon what the topography presents just to make a personal statement.
“We forget that the playing of golf should be a delightful expression of freedom. Indeed, the perfect rhythmic coordination of the muscles to swing the club makes the golf stroke an art. And, being such, it is apt to induce an emotional state, under the stress of which human nature is not rational, and resents outspoken criticism. It follows that when the canvas of Nature over which the club-stroke must pass is filled with holes artificially designed to impede the golfer’s progress, these obvious man-made contraptions cause a violation of that sense of liberty he has every right to expect. This accounts for the checkered history of every artificial appearing golf course.”
“He must first feel before he thinks. He must perceive in the ground what might be, not conceive in his mind what must be.”
His criticism is that architects tend to become formula oriented in enforcing their will instead of letting them become an expression of the natural surroundings. As a result they become complacent in a sense of their omnipotence and what we see is redundant and gaudy instead of a pleasing reflection of nature itself.
Remember he wrote this in 1927, he must be rolling over in his grave looking at the work of some of the high profile architects of the modern era.
He is not saying that the courses need to be simplistic just to respect the natural appearance of the topography, rather Behr would argue that some elements of design being used to make the game easier or more presentable easier are not appropriate either.
“Sand is now being used, not solely for its legitimate purpose as a hazard, but as a species of beacon to guide the player in estimating distance. Thus a crutch is thrown into the landscape upon which the eye of the golfer may lean, and the hazard of indefinite space, calling for intelligence to solve, is to that extent mitigated. And greens are now being purposely tilted toward play, collars and mounds are being placed around them to keep the ball from straying, and enfeebled skill rejoices. Loose from any responsibility to obey geological law, the architect continues to invent devices to coddle the golfer. It is this disregard for the laws of the medium that explains ‘freak’ architecture.”
The goal should be for the architect to strike a proper balance of ego and humility in creating something pleasing to the eye as well as challenging to play. He can best achieve this by being respectful of natural elements of the land itself.
“It should now be apparent that true architecture can alone spring from observance of the laws accountable for the character of the earth’s surface. The forces of Nature must expend themselves in the design.”
Max H. Behr
The American Golfer