“We never find a useless or superfluous ornament; every ornament arises quietly and naturally from the surface” Owen Jones
Nearly one hundred years after Adolf Loos connected "Ornament and Crime," the role of ornament in architecture continues to be questioned. Although Loos argued distinction between ornament integral to the design and decoration as applied-expression, the divide between the two was marginalized with the proliferation of Modernism. As form followed function and less became more, Modern architecture developed as a study of reduction. Loos' exception for ornament through material, fabrication and making was blurry compared to the stark philosophy that all ornament was crime. At present, new materials and fabrication processes are available to architects and designers who are utilizing form and structure far beyond historic possibility. Methods integrating digital media and technology, such as Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines and parametric studies, have taken even the most traditional materials of steel and glass towards new construction previously unimaginable. These architecture forms, while integrating overall design, stand in direct contrast to the austerity of the 'box.' The question is posed as to how ornament is currently defined and understood within contemporary architectural practice.
In architecture, ornament is decorative detail on buildings. In a 1941 essay the architectural historian Sir John Summerson called it "surface modulation" (Summerson 1963). Ornament has been part of the tradition of architecture at all times and places in human history. During the19th century, the acceptable use of ornament, and its precise definition, became the source of aesthetic controversy in academic Western architecture, as architects and their critics searched for a suitable style. "The great question is," Thomas Leverton Donaldson asked in 1847, "are we to have an architecture of our period, a distinct, individual, palpable style of the 19th century?" (Summerson) In1849, when Matthew Digby Wyatt viewed the Exposition of agriculture and industry set up on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, he disapproved in recognizably modern terms of the plaster ornaments in faux-bronze and faux wood-grain: Both internally and externally there is a good deal of tasteless and unprofitable ornament... If each simple material had been allowed to tell its own tale, and the lines of the construction so arranged as to conduce to a sentiment of grandeur, the qualities of "power" and "truth," which its enormous extent must have necessarily ensured, could have scarcely fail to excite admiration, and that at a very considerable saving of expense. (1)
Contacts with other cultures through colonialism and soon the new discoveries of archaeology expanded the repertory of ornament available to revivalists, until its sheer variety became burdensome; after about 1880, photographic illustration made details of ornament even more widely available than prints had done. There were two available routes from this perceived crisis. One was to attempt to devise an ornamental vocabulary that was new and essentially contemporary. This was the route taken by architects like Louis Sullivan and his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright or the Spanish Antonio Gaudí. Art Nouveau, for all its excesses, was a conscious effort to evolve such a "natural" vocabulary of ornament.
Another latter approach was militantly urged by architect Adolf Loos in his 1908 manifesto, translated into English in 1913 and polemically titled "Ornament and Crime", in which he declared that lack of decoration is the sign of an advanced society. His argument was that ornament is economically inefficient and "morally degenerate” and that reducing ornament was a sign of progress. Modernists were eager to point to Louis Sullivan as their godfather in the cause of aesthetic simplification, dismissing the knots of intricately patterned ornament that articulated the skin of his structures.
Within the work of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus through the 1920s and 1930s, lack of decorative detail became a trademark of modern architecture. Lack of architectural ornamentation became equated with the moral virtues of honesty, simplicity, and purity. In 1932 Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock dubbed this the "International Style". What began as a matter of taste was transformed into an aesthetic mandate. Modernism became the only acceptable way to build. As the style hit its stride in the highly-developed postwar work of Mies van der Rohe, the canon of 1950s modernism became so strict that even accomplished architects like Edward Durrell Stone and Eero Saarinen could be ridiculed and effectively ostracized for departing from the aesthetic rules.
At the same time, the law against ornament began to come into serious question. "Architecture has, with some difficulty, liberated itself from ornament, but it has not liberated itself from the fear of ornament," Summerson observed in 1941.
One reason was that the very difference between the argument of ornament and structure is subtle and perhaps arbitrary. The pointed arches and flying buttresses of Gothic architecture are ornamental but structurally necessary; the I beams columns of the Farnsworth House International Style skyscraper are integral, not applied, but certainly have ornamental effect. Furthermore, architectural ornament can serve the practical purpose of establishing different signs and these useful design strategies had been outlawed. And by the mid-1950s, modernist figureheads Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer had been breaking their own rules by producing highly expressive, sculptural concrete work. Continues in next blog.