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.
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.
Here’s a house Loos designed a year earlier.
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.
Sixteen years later – that’s one-six years later – we have this.
Oops – sorry, I meant this.
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!
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.
Here’s a hotel at Disney World by the same Michael Graves. Life goes on.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s another example. It’s your basic building, minus the thermal cladding.
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.
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.
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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.