The Things Architects Do #2: Ornament

Hello again. I’d like to talk about ornament. But first, I have a friend who’d like to say something.


You can find Adolf Loos saying the same thing in more words here but he did make two important points. The first is that ornament is unnecessary – he believed that ornament on buildings was the sign of a decadent society. His second point is that ornament was “a crime against the national economy in that it is a waste of human labour, money and material”. He was right about it being the sign of a decadent society but then, architects like to spend clients’ money for them – and clients, for their part, prefer architects who spend their money in very visible ways because it lets other people see how much money they have to waste. What’s hard to understand about that? Anyway, to Adolf Loos and us at Misfits, ornament is a waste of resources that provides only a dubious visual pleasure, if anything, in return. It’s not nice.

Buildings like this one made Loos angry. It’s an example of Austrian Art Nouveau.

Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station, Vienna (1899) by Otto Wagner

Here’s one of Loos’ buildings. It made everyone else angry because, for the time, it had no ornament. It was bare and shocking. Loos added the window boxes later, as a compromise.

House of Michaelerplatz, Vienna (1910) by Adolf Loos

House on Michaelerplatz, Vienna (1911) by Adolf Loos

Here’s a house Loos designed a year earlier.

Steiner House, Vienna (1911) Adolf Loos

It’s the first example of a white building with (relatively) no ornament. The curvy roof is there because, in that part of Vienna, houses had to look like they were one storey but they could have windows in the roof. It’s the back of this house that usually gets all the attention.

Rear view of Steiner House

Sixteen years later – that’s one-six years later – we have this.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1926) Le Corbusier

Oops – sorry, I meant this.

“Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”

There is not much additional stuff – or is there? The shape of the “blank box” has become important and sexy shadows have become the new ornament. Shadows might not cost as much as stone ornament used to, but they are still expensive to make because curved white walls make “better” shadows. Corbusier invented a new way to waste human labour, money and material”. Nice one, Corby! 

Moving on, Ludwig Mies (van der Rohe was his wife’s name) remains an inspiration to modern-day minimalists like John Pawson. Here’s an example of LM’s contribution to architectural ornament. Use uniquely green marble. Have stainless steel columns. Polish them. Include a bronze sculpture. Say it’s the simple beauty of materials. Don’t say it’s the simple beauty of expensive materials and extremely contrived processes. Well done LM for finding a new way to make those basic architectural elements of walls and columns into something expensive and ornamental!

Bacelona Pavilion, Barcelona (originally 1929, demolished 1930, rebuilt 1986)

Here, we could go into a short diversion into Post-Modernism but it was basically a return to sticking stuff to the outsides of buildings once again. It was all unnecessary, but at least it was only on the outside of buildings. Nothing much changed on the insides.

15 storeys of columns and slabs, with some stuff on the outside

Here’s a hotel at Disney World by the same Michael Graves. Life goes on.

12 storeys of columns and slabs, with some stuff on the outside

From here on, the history of ornament gets interesting. Study the diagrams below. In the front “building” there are at least six places where the supposedly structural framework seems to go nowhere. In other places, there are squares within squares. Of course, the loads are carried by the floors instead, as this article says.  

“An unfolded elevational diagram was sent back and forth between Arup and OMA, mapping various investigations until the best solution was found. This dialogue produced some interesting results: for example, the highly unusual appearance where lines of the diagrid appear to be broken. Here, unreadable on the facade, the floor plates make the triangulation. This was mostly the result of the optimisation process, but OMA included one or two as moments of architectural playfulness.”

Moments of “architectural playfulness” eh? This sounds like ornament to me, because what we see has been designed for our supposed amusement. Someone has made a distinction between the bits of structure that are sexy and playful and the equally important structural bits that aren’t.

the full structural diagram

Admittedly, they have not added much additional cost in doing this, but why would one want to create a building that is shaped like this anyway? What’s really new here is that a lot of expensive structure has been used to create a building that, in its entirety, is one big ornament for a city. THE ENTIRE BUILDING IS ONE BIG ORNAMENT! This type of ornament is often called an iconic building. Sydney has one. Beijing has a few. Dubai has a couple. All these buildings have very expensive structure to create a decorative shape.

We seem to be getting out of this phase now since the world is in a bit of a mess and even rich clients don’t want to waste money upon buildings designed to look good on postcards. So what’s next? What new types of ornament can we look forward to?

I’ll write more about this in some later post, but I think we can expect to see a few more buildings like this one that are basic useful buildings on the inside, with an ornamental mask on the outside. 

Yas Hotel, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Here’s another example. It’s your basic building, minus the thermal cladding.

this is part of Masdar, on the inside

the finished building (on the shady side)

Both of these examples are from Abu Dhabi but that’s irrelevant. The important thing is that the main architectural expression is created by the bits that aren’t necessary. This is why they are always justified in terms of “shading” and “privacy” etc. Sure, they do this, but other simpler ways could do it just as well. 

Pseudo-functional ornament

What we are seeing is the physical gap between the necessary bits and the unnecessary bits becoming more noticeable. I believe that none other than Remment Koolhaas has called it “junkspace” and making it sound as if it’s some fantastic new thing that he invented for us, but it’s really just the fancy bits becoming isolated add-ons as the result of economic necessity. What’s interesting is that “design” (as in, the “architectural effect”) is becoming an add-on.

* * *

Years ago, John Ruskin praised architecture by saying “Architecture is about what is not necessary”. From even the few examples above, it’s obvious he was right. Architecture is concerned with and has always been concerned with finding new and unnecessary ways to make buildings more expensive. If so, then we should stop pretending that it is anything more than that. This means that buildings with nothing wasteful about them can’t be called Architecture. Bashar and I are fine with that. We would rather lose the concept of Architecture and have buildings that are useful. As for “Architecture”, it can carry on as it is and risk becoming even more irrelevant than it is now.

4 thoughts on “The Things Architects Do #2: Ornament

  1. Josh

    After reading so many posts I’ve been thinking of a question to ask you about the value you place on aesthetics and the actual appearance of buildings.

    You seem to maintain the view that buildings should first and foremost be cost effective, functionalist, and that any attempt to add beauty for the sake of beauty mustn’t add to the cost of the building, or detract from the function of the building. (I could of course quite easily be misinterpreting this!).

    As a student at the moment, it does strike me as interesting, and indeed is very much the opposite of what lots of our teachers instruct in studio.

    I do like the idea of functionalist, simple and relatively non-ornamented/styleless building (which in itself could possible be seen as a style when popular enough.).

    However, could applying this kind of rationale, in reality, lead to mass uniformity of buildings in society? If say, all buildings did use the most cost efficient materials, forms, constructions methods etc, wouldn’t many projects with similar briefs end up looking very similar, and ultimately create banal uninteresting cities/environments with many buildings of similar appearance and materiality?

    Also, what do you think is an acceptable justification for creating a room/building that has been designed to satisfy the program beyond just the core functions – to enhance the look of the space by employing new materials/elements that don’t fulfil a particularly functional role (besides visually). For example, the use of timber flooring simply because it contrasts nicely with the white walls and you like the feel/look of that.

    I suppose another point i thought of while reading is the hanging of artwork in homes. Do you think these adornments are bad/useless things? Is hanging art work purely an expression of ones ability to afford it? Which is what you suggested about the use of more expensive materials than necessary in buildings. Or does it sometimes add to the experience of the building? Could this be partly functional?
    Then how does the hanging of paintings, which I think can be a good thing, differ from ‘adding’ style and beauty to the building itself, in a way that enhances only visually and does add cost. After all, a painting/ photograph only adds visually, and adds cost.

    Sorry that this comment is probably very convoluted and hard to read! It is a jumble of the thoughts and questions I’ve wondered about while reading through some of the posts on here.

    Hopefully you can find the time to read through it and decipher some of the things I was trying to ask or discuss!


    1. Graham McKay

      Thanks Josh, I think you’ve got it right. The post best illustrates the “misfits’ approach”, as it were. Such an approach would definitely create more uniformity in buildings but mainly because we would have no more false difference. This fundamental uniformity would of course vary to respond to local conditions such as topography, availability and cost of materials and labour, and ambient givens such as climate and weather. This second choice is basically the principles of vernacular option we find so attractive in other cultures and eras, but is resisted and opposed in our own.

      Architecture, or at least what is presented as architecture, seems to be moving further and faster in the direction of contrived difference and fleeting novelty. Such a situation can go on forever. It’s fine in the worlds of pop music, movies and other fields of consumer entertainment but not very useful in architecture. Nothing ever improves. Economic advantages of better technologies for things that could make a difference, are frittered away by decadent wastage on things that don’t. This is my main objection to Patrik Schumacher’s justifications for the output of Zaha Hadid Architects. I don’t think any company with pre-tax profits approaching £40 mil. can claim to represent the heart and soul of architecture and benefit “society” at the same time.

      As for your other comment Josh well, as a user, I don’t expect buildings to intimidate me into choosing certain items over others when it comes to me using a space. If I own some piece of art then it’s probably because I like looking at it, not because it makes the space any better. I know I might choose to hang or that piece art in a certain position within that space but now we’re talking about interiors and that synergy between object and space that’s neither architectural nor individual in any way – other than “I like it that way”. This is some kind of lifestyle statement or worse, it’s me saying “I’m making a lifestyle statement” and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Our buildings should let us live in them however we please. As you can see, I don’t believe in the concept of “total design” or “the complete work of art”. For me, this concept is just a smokescreen for architects to justify extra fees and/or the crass opportunism of designer goods. There was some architect, I forget who (Gropius? or if not some contemporary of his?) who designed not only the chairs and the knives and forks but also the clothes to be worn inside the house. I don’t think there were any takers. We shouldn’t assume that architects have our best interests at heart.

      Josh thanks for asking. Answering your questions reminded me that there is something consistent linking all of these apparently random posts.


  2. jon

    actually, adolf loos made the point in ornament and crime, not that ornament was unnecessary but that it made sense when the materials / ornament were hewn by craftsman, it didn’t make sense to mass manufacture them out of cast iron – as you say they became a costly / unnecessary addition. If you look closely at looshaus, you see that adolf loos has actually swapped the visual richness of ornament for the visual richness of highly patterned marble – mies was a proponent of the same ideals. Ornament, itself is not neccessary but the fundamental role that ornament played was as the visual expression of the junction of materials or architectural elements – they visually stitch the disparate parts into a whole. Every culture through history has created it’s own unique ornament as a means of dealing with a very real visual problem. It is a problem faced when joining any two things together at all scales; whether it be different fabrics in clothing, a roof beam to a post, the lower third to the upper two thirds of a building, the building to the city. To say ornament is unneccessary based on Loos’ writing is misreading his intention – it is also denying that we have been ‘ornamenting’ all of our artifacts thoroughout history. It must have some intrinsic value beyond our own contemporary reading of it?

    1. Graham McKay

      thanks Jon – you made a lot of good points that I’ve been mulling. I probably was mis-reading Loos. I haven’t gone back over O&C but I do remember Loos mentioning primitive people and their tattoos but, although it’s a fair analogy to make in a polemic, it’s probably irrelevant to the bits we’re interested in. By the way, have you read Farshid Moussavi’s “The Function of Ornament”? I tried, but it seemed quite vapid. But yes, I agree that the nature of ornament changes. Swapping increasingly incongruous decorative bits for the visual richness of expensive materials is, to my mind anyway, a new articulation of the same desire to display some surplus wealth. A cynical outlook, I know, but it is rather timeless beyond, as you say, our contemporary reading of it? The intrinsic value that ornament has, in whatever form it takes, doesn’t necessarily have to be a noble one. The expression of wealth is a timeless desire and one that, historically, architecture has been very good at articulating. (Having said this, the striped house that Loos designed for Josephine Baker has always been a favourite of mine.)

      Your other point that got me thinking was the one about covering junctions in a pleasing manner. A basic example might be a skirting board covering the junction between wall and floor finish. This is ornamental I suppose, but only in that it hides a lot of potentially messy joins and lowers the construction cost. It is less expensive to make a feature of that junction. Ironically, John Pawson goes the other route and does away with the skirting board and thus necessitating some expensively contrived processes and details to avoid the messiness of joins. We may admire such minimalist effects but we are really just admiring the level of contrivance to deny that buildings are, in fact, constructed objects. Displays of wealth do have a social function and Pawson is to be credited for coming up with a new way. I guess he owes a lot to Mies though.

      Getting a bit philosophical now, I don’t really see what’s wrong with buildings looking like the constructed objects they are. I’m all for exposed surfaces and materials – not just the polished timber or stainless steel, or huge slabs of onxy or marble, but the raw brick and concrete and timber that buildings are actually made of. If junctions are nothing to be ashamed of, then plaster and paint as just as ornamental as wallpaper. Stucco and render are just as ornamental as mathematical tiles. Much money is spent making buildings appear something other than what they are. I’m still not sure if this need is a real or an imagined one.

      I expect that new forms of ornament will be invented in the future. They will continue to be less overtly ornamental. They may possibly even be perceived as “intrinsic”. Once we have run out of ways to mess around with materials, perhaps the construction of buildings by ornamentally ostentatious processes will come into vogue – like that Peter Zumthor chapel where he piled up logs, poured concrete over them, and then burnt away the logs to create a ‘negative space’ (aka big black hole) inside. I think there will always be something.

      But many thanks Jon. If you have any further thoughts on this, then please let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll keep a lookout for new types of the same thing.

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