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The problem with ornament

Minimalism may symbolise luxury, but it could be time to refamiliarise ourselves with our decorative roots

Ornament begins as luxury. The more ornamented a building, a piece of clothing or an item of jewellery, the more labour has gone into its production and the more expensive it is. The Industrial Revolution and machine production changed everything. Suddenly decoration became cheap. Which coincided with the economic need for growth - the manufacture of more and more (decorated) stuff. This, in essence, is the argument of Marx, Morris, Loos and Veblen. Decoration characterised as a mechanism for capital to produce and sell more useless crap to the masses.

Of course, as soon as ornament becomes cheap, elite taste moves on. If decoration is suddenly cheap, then the plainer an object, the more valuable it suddenly becomes. This is, effectively, the birth of Modernism as described by Pevsner and others, the stripped aesthetic of the Bauhaus or the Arts and Crafts where the effort now goes not into ornamentation but into making the building or the product so that it appears simple. But with the added dimension of morality. The stripping-off of ornament suddenly becomes an ethical duty, which leads to the moralising (rather than necessarily moral) arguments of the Modernists.


Source: Anne Schönharting/OSTKREUZ

Use of the convex and the concave on Roger Anger’s monochromatic Matrimandir in Auroville, southern India, subtly combines simplicity and decoration

The curious thing is this conflation between Minimalism, modernity and morality. Ruskin, the originator of the moral argument, equated the work of the craftsman - which is necessarily some kind of ornamentation - as a moral prerogative. Adolf Loos, despite his ‘Ornament and Crime’ (the laughably silly text without which any discussion of the subject is impossible), agrees. For Loos, the shoemaker decorating his brogues is exactly the craftsman at the heart of good design. You only need to look at Loos’s interiors to understand that his position on ornament has been radically over-simplified. His text was aimed at the excesses of the Viennese Secession, a particular moment, it is dripping with sarcasm.

‘Ornament is the language through which architecture communicates with a broader public - each remove puts another degree of separation between the profession and the public’

But that century-and-a-half of the critique of ornament, that resistance to decoration in design, has become so embedded in our culture that we are now able only to approach the subject through irony or deliberate distance. Whether we think of the appliqué classicism of Postmodernism or the thin veneer of decorative facades engendered by digital production, ornament today is almost inevitably seen at a remove. That alienation is at the heart of the problem - and it is a problem because ornament is the language through which architecture communicates with a broader public and each remove puts another degree of separation between the profession and the public.


Source: Alex Cassels

Gaudí’s decorative fervour, manifest in the undulating curves and mosaic facades of his creations, such as the chimneys at Casa Milà in Barcelona, is unparalleled

The world’s most popular architect - by the most measurable means, entry tickets - is Antoni Gaudí. Twice as many people visit the Sagrada Família each year (3.2 million plus) as live in Barcelona (1.6 million) itself. It is not an accident that Gaudí is also the most obsessively decorative architect of modernity. His work gives us a depth of decoration and interest that the Barcelona Pavilion - despite its sublimity and cult status for us architects - cannot ever match. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, they may have indulged in outrageous kitsch but they become ever bigger cults not through their composition or their handling of a plan or the way they manipulate light in space but because of their use of ornament and its transferability into other media - tea towels, coasters, scarves, posters and so on.

We might think that with the sublimation of Postmodernism (look at the pleas to list No 1 Poultry, PoMo is now historic and acceptable), pluralism and the anything-goes attitude embodied in a contemporary art scene that finds room for Grayson Perry, Chris Ofili, Peter Doig and Pablo Bronstein, we have come to terms with ornament. But we have not. Not even a tiny bit. Some parts of design culture have addressed the discrepancy between the (middle-class) taste for Minimalism and the (working-class) enthusiasm for kitsch through an effort to introduce a Minimalist interface between the two. This is fascinating because whereas once ornament and decoration were the mechanism through which architects communicated, now that mechanism is the high design interface - the iPhone or the iPad which is the Minimalist device through which we mask our kitsch tastes for cute kittens, celebrity bikini disasters or selfies taken on a stick against a background of Gaudí.


The detailed plan of the central staircase at London’s refurbished Tate Britain demonstrates that ornament came high on Caruso St John’s agenda

Contemporary architects are, however, increasingly engaging with ornamentation. The zenith was Grayson Perry and Charles Holland of FAT’s fairytale House for Essex (p64), but it does not serve as an indicator because the involvement of an artist has allowed an enhanced engagement with ornament until it surpasses mere decoration and becomes embodied in the architecture in a way that architects do not allow themselves to do. Think of FAT’s old work: the ornament is all contained within a surface - a facade - which allowed them to separate out the (Modernist) architecture from the (kitsch) superficiality of the elevation. Like Venturi before them, their ornament allowed them to have their ornamentally iced cake - and eat the Minimal Modernist sponge underneath.

Herzog & de Meuron latched onto decoration before everyone else but retained a self-conscious superficiality - and it tends to be the involvement of an artist (for example Thomas Ruff at the Eberswalde Library) which legitimates the act - as if it somehow eludes responsibility. Caruso St John found a copy of Semper and hasn’t stopped since - look at the practice’s Tate Britain refurb. They are still sweetly delighted that they have discovered decoration. Mecanoo loves ornament. The result is Birmingham Central Library, a knock-off high-fashion concept facade more suited to Louis Vuitton in Taiwan than a civic amenity. There is also a stream of facades with portraits etched into them - Baukuh’s House of Memory (AR August 2015) and Haworth Tompkins’ Stirling Prize-winning Everyman Theatre stand out. Here ornament is used to attempt to re-embed a still-unfamiliar Modernism into a living community through the two-dimensional portrayal of real people. Which is about as alienated an intent as you could imagine - it screamingly underscores architecture’s failure to find mechanisms to connect.


The innovative facade of Amin Taha Architects’ redevelopment project on a Second World War bomb site in north London features cornices and pediments

This discourse, as ever, omits the neo-classicists - for whom decoration never went away. There are architects who will still spend countless hours sketching column capitals. There are also others - perhaps Dixon Jones or Peter Märkli - who seem more comfortable with ornament while even corporate Modernist fanboys AHMM have jumped aboard with their extremely fine Stirling-Prize nominated Burntwood School which revives a tradition of 1960s decoration, from the first period of minimal ennui.

Ornament is not essential to architecture but people continue to like it. Perhaps architects need to begin thinking why, after their best efforts to educate them otherwise, they still do. Perhaps the people are right and it is indispensable. The problem is that most architects seem to have lost the knack. Ornament is not on the curriculum. Perhaps it should be.

Readers' comments (1)

  • n’importe quoi! ornaments, c’est DNK d’architecture, les architectes japonais ont bien compris ce transfert de le plus petit à le plus grands, ce blow-up d’une mystère de naissance cosmique qui se multiplie etc etc, au revoire ! (prenez plutôt un microscope pour mieux comprendre les objets visibles)

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