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Gilt complex: buildings that glitter

Gold 001 baptistery dome architectural review

From pagodas to the lavatory, architecture’s most precious material is rich in meaning

‘When we are victorious on a world scale’, Lenin wrote in 1921, ‘I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories.’ With this startling proposition, the revolutionary attempted to imagine the profound transformation that would be wrought in value by the transition to communism. Nothing, to his mind, could demonstrate this more strikingly than the draining of splendour from gold, a kind of reverse alchemy perpetrated by the proletariat that would encompass not just the world economy but also, by extension, the realm of architecture. For gold, when it had previously been used in building, had been the preserve of the church – in Russia, one thinks immediately of St Basil’s – and the aristocracy. We are still waiting for these Midases to lose their golden touch, but this does not mean the architectural demonstration of splendour has remained unchanged over the centuries.

The Greeks gave us the Golden Ratio; the Romans, the Domus Aurea – that’s one simple-mindedly binary way of plotting these modulations, perpetuating the idea that architecture is essentially spatial and that anything else is gilding the lily. But, while the Golden Ratio was formulated by the Greeks, the notion that it underlay their greatest hits (and everything in the canon since) is a mid-19th-century invention.

Gold 002 cabonero ca doro architectural review

Gold 002 cabonero ca doro architectural review

The Ca d’Oro or golden house in Venice, the facade of which was originally covered with gold leaf, was completed in 1430. In this 1897 painting by José Moreno Carbonero it glows as if restored to its original splendour

Gold 003 rock myanmar architectural review

Gold 003 rock myanmar architectural review

The Golden Rock in Myanmar is venerated with the application of gold leaf, but only by male worshippers: women are not permitted access. Photograph by Gregory Vore / courtesy of Alamy

And while Nero’s notorious Domus Aurea, or ‘golden house’, was decorated richly enough (think gilded mosaics on the ceiling) to win it that nickname, it was also, thanks to the ‘concrete revolution’ that occurred under Nero’s rule, composed of rooms of unprecedented spatial richness. So luxury can clearly be as spatial as it is material – perhaps increasingly so, as a glance at rightmove.co.uk might suggest.

Nevertheless, following on from this suspicion of Roman decadence, the use of gold in art and architecture has been seen as an essentially Byzantine (and therefore ‘oriental’) technique for the production of non-perspectival space. The backgrounds of icons and apsidal mosaics, like those in Ravenna and Istanbul, open a luminous window into the eternal, whereas, following Giotto, the flat space of the painting plane was, using perspective, transformed into an illusionistic reproduction of earthly space. One is produced with geometry and humble paint, the other with superstition and gilded glass – so runs the saw. 

There is clearly a significant historical association between gold and spiritual power. This equation rests, at least partly, on the essential and unchanging material properties of gold: on practical considerations such as its longevity and the possibility of producing extremely fine leaf that can be applied to surfaces of great complexity, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on its apparent ability to emit light. However, the luminescence of gold, though important to the Byzantines, actually came second to the lustre of marble, at least in some accounts. Procopius wrote of the Hagia Sophia that ‘one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it’. But while ‘the whole ceiling is overlaid with pure gold, which adds glory to the beauty […] the light reflected from the stones prevails, shining out in rivalry with the gold’. Gold then was clearly not always the dernier cri in luxury, even in Byzantium, and we have here an early suggestion that gilding is a superficial ornament to the essential body of the building, perhaps surprising given its authorship. 

Gold 004 dhammakaya cetiya bangkok architectural review

Gold 004 dhammakaya cetiya bangkok architectural review

The enormous Dhammakaya Cetiya near Bangkok, its central pagoda covered in small gilded buddhas, was completed in 2000. Photograph by imageBROKER / courtesy of Alamy

Gold 006 oma haunted house fondazione prada architectural review

Gold 006 oma haunted house fondazione prada architectural review

Designed by OMA, the Haunted House at the Fondazione Prada in Milan is covered in gold leaf and holds the permanant art collection. Photograph by Paul Raftery

Gold has also long been prized for its heavenliness in Asia, particularly in Buddhist architecture. The use of gold on temple roofs is a particularly telling employment of its reflective qualities: this strategy doubles the light of heaven, brings it down to Earth and captures it in architectural form. Golden temples continue to be built today, such as the Dhammakaya Cetiya near Bangkok, which opened at the turn of the millennium. However, the controversy surrounding this huge building – which can seat 10,000 monks around the central pagoda – hints at one of the enduring difficulties with the use of such splendid materials for religious purposes. As well as its material qualities, one of the undeniable reasons for the architectural use of gold is its rarity and, therefore, its expense. This inextricably intertwines spiritual and worldly power.

Reactions to this nexus have been enduring and tempestuous; for instance, the mendicant orders, founded on principles of renunciation, were tangled in long justificatory debates about grandeur as their endowments grew and, with them, the richness of their churches. In the West, gold tended to vanish from architectural decoration with the development of perspective, but to reduce the geneaology of this phenomenon to this single origin would be insufficient and idealistic, especially in the face of the massive social and economic changes occurring in European society at this time. While the material properties of gold that encouraged its architectural employment haven’t changed, its social valorisation has – and as Lenin anticipated, it may do so again.  

Gold 005 hans hollein travel vienna architectural review

Gold 005 hans hollein travel vienna architectural review

Golden palm trees in Hans Hollein’s 1976 Austrian Travel Agency in Vienna

Gold 007 campbell centre neuhaus taylor architectural review

Gold 007 campbell centre neuhaus taylor architectural review

The towers of the 1972 Campbell Centre in Dallas by Neuhaus & Taylor are clad in mirror glass with a very fine coating of real gold; this reflects 90 per cent of the sunlight hitting the buildings, making them significantly more energy efficient than conventionally glazed towers

While its spiritual use abated, gold continued to be employed for secular purposes in the West whenever imperial splendour was to be connoted. The Ca d’Oro in Venice – another golden house – had at first a gilded facade, the reflection of which in the canal must have had a similarly entrancing effect to that of the Golden Temple in Amritsar or Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto. The model for the Contarinis, who built the palazzo, was to be found much closer, however, in the facade mosaics of San Marco. This adoption of Byzantine religious tropes, even by a family as elevated as the Contarinis (they produced eight doges), must surely have been the cause of some mutterings when the house was completed in 1430. And in later palaces, built in locations less accustomed to public ostentation, gilding was generally reserved for interiors. The richness of Baroque spaces such as the hall of mirrors, and of neoclassical interiors such as Robert Adam’s decorations of Syon House, was intended only for the eyes of the aristocracy and not for the envious masses.

In a bourgeois era, however, gilding escaped into the street once more, especially on stately pleasure domes such as opera houses. And although Beaux-Arts pomposity was rejected by its critics, golden accents were reproduced on Jugendstil structures like the Secession building in Vienna. But this was a last gasp; gold, smothered by moral considerations, was extinguished in architecture. That is, until the proliferation of mirror glass in the work of late Modernists in the 1970s (the technique had been invented by Roche and Dinkeloo, who were allegedly inspired by aviator sunglasses), and that of Postmodernists such as Hans Hollein. There may be other forces at work behind this turn of events, but it is clear that the triumphant return of gold, embodied most recently in OMA’s spectacular Fondazione Prada, corresponds to the return of oligarchy. The last is a typical exhibition of cynical frankness from Koolhaas – the relics of industry, transformed into a bank vault for blue-chip investment pieces, then gilded like a mummy’s mask. 

Lenin’s toilet is not here yet, but this funereality suggests it may not be too long before we can say, in the words of the poet Johann Heinrich Voss: ‘how splendidly your gilded shit-house gleams!’

Gold 008 toilet maurizio cattelan architectural review

Gold 008 toilet maurizio cattelan architectural review

Maurizio Cattelan’s America (2016), a solid-gold toilet with gold-plated pipework, has been installed for the use of visitors to the New York Guggenheim since 2016; this year it will temporarily visit Blenheim Palace in the UK. Photograph by Jacopo Zotti, courtesy of Maurizio Cattelan’s archive

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today