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Editorial: How to get the balance right; to create architecture with a social purpose, but not without delight?

Is ornament an improvement on the icon? What is disappointing is that we are still stuck discussing how a building looks

The return to ornament is an evolution of the ‘icon’ building. The emphasis may be on craft rather than form, but these buildings still clamour for attention, shouting ‘I am here.’ They share with the icon its selfie-friendly facade. This is architecture destined to be photographed, perhaps even nicknamed, heralding its presence as a landmark through the use of decoration, from brick mosaics to gilded towers.

Where it differs from the icon is in the emphasis on ‘making’; the craftsmanship or process by which the decorative element was created. The ornamentation may also feature on only part of the building, whereas an icon always refers to the whole.

Is ornament an improvement on the icon? It is certainly more delightful, especially for Joe Public, who can more readily appreciate the craft of the building. You can hear Joe say, perhaps, of the formidable House for Essex, ‘Not to my taste, but think of the work involved.’

In contrast, the icon is often described as having landed (or crashed) spaceship-like into the city. Where ornament suggests the careful work of  homo faber - human as maker - as Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman, the icon suggests an alien invasion to Joe. The decorative element of the work strangely suggests more labour than a Bilbao, and encourages consideration of the act of making.

What is disappointing is that we are still stuck discussing how a building looks - the superficial and the shallow. I feel haunted by the definition of ornament as a decorative element that serves no practical purpose - hasn’t architecture been accused of the same?

‘Our desire to decorate says something about who we are, and our shared ambition to rise above base needs’

Renzo Piano’s Malta parliament is not skin deep. With its public space and its evolution of the historic fabric of the city walls, it moves beyond ornament as icon to make a public place, a new piece of city. Here, the ornament becomes an acknowledgement of the building’s importance to the people. Ornament, like a hand-decorated birthday cake, marks it out as special (not just any cake, this one’s for you).

Other buildings covered here, such as Monadnock’s Landmark in the Netherlands, are more surface than substance - the building is an empty folly with a viewing platform in the tower. It’s a lovely folly, but take the building as a metaphor for architecture and we are sunk.

Is ornament superfluous? We have praised unadorned function, but perhaps this has alienated the profession from its audience, homo faber. Our desire to decorate says something about who we are, and our shared ambition to rise above base needs, to overcome our mortality by leaving our mark, and to seek an experience of the sublime.

But how to get the balance right; to create architecture with a social purpose, but not without delight, that steps out of the photograph to place its emphasis on all three dimensions? When the need for shelter is served with space, light and delight, there we find the best that architecture can offer.

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