Rethinking the concept of “ornament” in architectural design Hakan Saglam
If it is possible to argue today a sustainable argument about the concept of “ornament”, it signals to and verifies a continuous evolution and change depending on the given data about personal, societal, industrial and technological issues. In terms of production, until the Industrial Revolution, an artisan had invigorated as result of expression of the moral and physical duties that the universe and his guild had offered him with. Revolutionary developments in the fields of industrialization, transportation, communication and production have led to heavy criticisms about social functionality being replaced by the figural-meaningless repetition of the visual-fanciful.1 Historically speaking, the relationship of architecture and ornament has taken quite an interesting course. It was revealed sometimes in the form of mere expression and sometimes as show of power. During its course of development, the concept of ornamentation has evolved from cave carvings to technical perfection and photomounting of new constructions. Today’s advantageous techniques and the facilities introduced by computers point to a stronger relationship between ornament and architecture. Architecture constructs its spatial expres- sion through the language and communicative power of its materials. The materials used in a work of architecture have been the sole element for expression of a symbolic-allegorical picture until the rise of arguments about expressing the shaping of the physical characteristics of the materials inside a certain location as a necessity required by architectural ethics.2
In his “Ten Books on Architecture”, Vitruvius argues that for test of good knowledge of history necessary for the education of an architect, there lies his ability to “explain the truth beneath ornamentation.”3 From antiquity, when a symbolic layer cove- red the surface of buildings independent of its functionality and load-bearing construction, to the high Gothic architectural times, when architecture meant cosmos expressed in monolith, ornament comes in the foreground as the sole shape and functionality of the stone material. The Gothic architecture, upon which modern architecture has based its ethical infrastructure, not only has united its prede- cessors but also proved itself an unchanging point of reference for future generations. The interesting point is that the representation of the symbolic union of the universe in Gothic architecture which has brought together all the architectural elements and ornament as a unit, had tended to dissemble again during the late Gothic period. Back then, it was possible to mention the designing of new architectural sites4 as part of some intellectual activity on one hand, and the re-discovery of ornament as a “pleasant” contribution to this activity on the other.
The basis of the arguments which have come down to us today about the relationship of architecture with that of ornament has been formulated into a theoretical problem since the times of Leon Battista Alberti. He has related ornament with religious constructions as well as common and private property. And in doing this, he has considered architecture completely as a “beautiful art” and a “body”.5 In his analysis of the Renaissance period, he has explained ornament as an element separately attached on surface of buildings. He has explained that, “ornament can be defined as an auxiliary light and that it also defines beauty. Beauty is an internal characteristic. Ornament is rather a characteristic attached or applied later externally. Moreover, ornament is an intermediary agent between pure nature (mate- rial) and the architect’s creative composition and it carries the visual to perfection with its final touch.6 Almost a hundred years later than Alberti, Wendel Dietterlin7 asserts that ornament is not an element subsequently attached to the building but is an actual architectural element.
According to Dietterlin, ornament is an architectural component filled with richness and imagination and it has evolved logically from “Classical Orders”. Christopher Wren has been a leading figure who clearly explained the social and psychological context of the relationship between architecture and or- nament. According to him, “Architecture has a political function. Public buildings are a country’s ‘ornament’. And it is these buildings which make people love their country.”8 As can be seen clearly here, Wren takes the building as “ornament”. For him, buildings should be taken individually as ornaments that are special for those countries. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach whose book is considered to be the world’s first on comparative architectural history, (though not on theoretical grounds) endeavours to present quite a personal understanding of the concept of architecture. This understanding would require the “laws and regulations” that the architect should conform to as well as a good idea and a for- mula with which to erect a particular order, units, measurements and harmony. Basing his understan- ding of architecture upon extensive research, B. F. Erlach claims that for ornament to be considered a success, one needs “The ideas and formulas9 of the ‘Old’ which have been tested through long-term research, experience and success.
Most of the criticisms against what is said in Europe about what ornamentation should or should not be come from England. James Gibbs, who has the reputation of having written the first book in English on architecture calls out not only architects but also other gentlemen related to construction work. In his book which can also be labelled as a “monograph”, he claims that in architecture, beauty depends on proportion and that architectural beauty is possible only upon a surface that is plain and not ornamen- ted. According to J. Gibbs, the elegance, beauty and magnificence of buildings are neither derived from the quality and richness of its material nor from extremity of certain lines and details. Whether there are some ornaments placed correctly in accordance with the original plan or not, it is fundamental that each unit be in proportional harmony with each other and with the whole.10 Similar to J. Gibbs, Robert Morris expresses his views on ornament as an amateur architect in the two books11 that he had written, emphasising the proportion-beauty relationship in architecture. For him, a plain proportional surface appeals to taste and most importantly and primarily to eyes, more than a construction that is tasteless and ill proportioned.
While in England ornament is given special emphasis, there still prevail some views that are contrary to this. In his first theoretical work on architecture, Giovanni Battista Piranesi had traced the marks12 of change of architectural concepts from that of direct functional art into the art of ornament. He had in his agenda the discussion of the perfection and of the fantasy world of the architecture of Late Roman Empire. Apart from retrospective ideas about how ornament should be, there are also works done on how ornament can prove successful. According to Carl Alexander Heideloff, ornament is an insepara- ble component of architecture, and it can prove successful only if each component is in proportional harmony among themselves and with the whole. For Heideloff, ornament must also take on a compen- sating duty that in order for style to achieve a purified and perfect state, “ornament” which is “done at random” must got rid of.13 After about a century’s interval, there is again a tendency to return to plain and unornamented concept of architectural style in England. Augustus Welby Pugin14 explains in a ra- dical tone that rejects “Classical Architecture” that the key to architectural beauty is plain construction and functional design. The rest, including ornament, are of secondary importance. Another English architect George Aitchison has emphasised the point that in order to establish an architectural style of our own era, stylistic beauty should be taken into consideration more than ornament and he has ex- pressed this though the following statement: that “pure, elegant and unornamented plain style should be applied everywhere from buildings to our tea-spoons.”15 The attitude against ornament, which we may label as an English tradition, seems to have been established before the beginnings of the twen- tieth-century. In his speech16 addressed to the members of RIBA, Robert Kerr underlined his view that the distinguishing characteristic of architecture from that of mere building are its “architecturesque” characteristics and that such buildings can be classified under four groups according to the style of ornaments applied to these buildings.17 Today, this classification still draws a valid conceptual frame. Outside England, Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc, evaluating the subject from a functional point of view, emphasises that architecture should tell the truth as an ethical and constructional obligation by saying that “the primary function of columns is to carry loads, and if they do not do that, they should not be placed on the facades of buildings like arabesque ornaments which are useless”. The idea “that each material should be used functionally and proportionately in proper place to express its power and limitations appropriate for its era”18 still continues to be an important milestone in architecture and today’s theories on restoration.
On face of such thoughts, Gottfired Semper, who considers ornament as a process concerning the es- sence of construction of buildings, believes that fabrication lies at the root of ornament and that orna- ment is the actual beginning of architectural style. Architecture may actually be defined as an activity of ornament.19 The idea of the inseparability of ornament from the practice of architecture has been defended by many people. Owen Jones has endeavoured to read ornament within cultural and stylistic categories, approaching it as having gone through a cultural, stylistic and natural evolution. According to him, ornament reveals itself as the true spirit of architecture even though it can be considered cha- racteristically an accessory to architectural construction and that it should not cover the constructive elements and surfaces excessively.20 However, Jones had made an important distinction. He had not considered ornament to be the result of an architectural process. Ornament is as old as humanity and architecture had adapted it to itself in relation to time and place. Similar to Semper, John Ruskin has also argued that ornament is about the essence of architecture rather than being a robe put on from outside and that apart from revealing directly the relationship of humanity with god, it reflects the in- ternal beauty of architecture. For him ornament is the primary part of architectural construction. The grandeur of a building does not show by its constructive perfection but by the quality of its ornament and painting.21 From these lines, we can deduce the fact that similar to Gothic architectural style, J. Ruskin’s understanding of ornament is that of an integral one with the building under construction. As being one of the leading actors during the years when functionalism was still flourishing, Louis Sullivan22 had suggested that ornament added liveliness and individuality to buildings. For the creator of the motto, “form follows function”, this approach alone is enough to indicate how important a role has ornament in the construction of buildings. L. Sullivan’s application of plant-patterned ornament in the construction of his buildings was the consequences of this particular view. As one of the leading 20th Century intellectuals of Germany, Hermann Muthesius underlines his opinion in his article ca- lled “New Ornament and New Art”23 that particularly in designing of the interiors, minimum use of ele- ments may fulfil new tastes and that contemporary desires would even become poetic if treated within this new concept of ornament.
The very same year (1901) Henry Van de Velde had compiled his own theory by separating ornament from its historical codes. He had chosen as reference and as the basis of his foundation, more abstract concepts like harmony, balance, colour, and so on. He puts forward the concept of “abstract ornament”24 and claims that these new concepts help the shaping of both the architects’ buildings and the style of ornament.25
One of the leading names in German expressionist architecture, Hans Poelzig states in his article published in 1906, that modern era has created a peculiar style of his own in every field that concerns ornament.26 However, he does not believe that architecture could be dominated by ornament. For him, true architectural construction cannot be hidden beneath ornament and that the problems of modern architecture cannot be solved by means of solutions on the surface but it is important to discover an “original-form”. He had claimed that the designer, who approaches the designing of constructive ele- ments in particular with the purpose of ornament only, would be drifted apart from an “original form”. H. Poelzig draws attention to an important point against the re-build attitude which is dealt with exten- sively in modern architecture: “If the building is to be turned completely into one piece of ornamented work, is it meaningful to get rid of ornament?” he asks and makes a critique of the entire modern move- ment in advance and from within. In this particular context, long before Venturi, this very attitude can be considered as the forerunner of future prospects. 27 About the same period, and in 1908 to be exact, Adolf Loos had his article “Ornament and Crime” published, which can be considered as his most ra- dical publication in content and style about ornament and architecture. Louis Sullivan who happens to have influenced Loos during his three years’ of stay in the United States can be considered as one of the powerful sources for this article. Loos was influenced by the following words which read: “if we were to put aside ornament for a while and concentrate only on constructing buildings meticulously stylized and have dignified attraction, the attitude would only be beneficial”.28 Frank Lloyd Wright, an eminent architect in the 20th Century United States had laid the foundations of “Organic Architecture”, and yet also expressed his view that he considered ornament as an integral part of construction by saying that “elements of decoration and even musical instruments are integral parts of buildings, not annexes”.
According to Wright, ornament “is an abstract rhythm of structure” and it belongs to the interior world of constructive elements. As result of the fast pace of developments in industry, technology and techni- que and its reflections on every aspect of our daily lives have brought about a new concept of “beauty” which is called an “aesthetics of machinery”. In the year 1914, two young artists Antonio Sant Elia and Tommaso Marinetti published their futurist manifesto by declaring the ultimate victory of the aesthetics of machinery which had given way to the uniting of all the previous critique about ornament under a catastrophic unity. “A house made up of concrete and iron, unpainted and with no statues should be enriched with only the beauty of its lines... and that the element of ornament should be eliminated. The enforcement of the robe of ornament over architecture is meaningless and that the decorative value of futurist architecture is dependent only on the original use and organisation of materials which are rough, bare and in glamorous colours...”29 seems to support Loos’ viewpoint on this subject. In Germany, however, Walter Gropius had expressed his gratifying approach towards architecture by calling upon a unification of arts under architecture without making a distinction between monumental and decorative art. This particular attitude is the concrete form of dictum “Gesamkunstwerk–total work of art”. For him, design should contain “beauty” as a separate category, and that it should not include references to quantitative resources other than the dynamics, components and the functionality of the design itself. Iconic characters, like the intellectuals Naum Gabo, Antonie Pevsner, Theo Van Doesburg, and Le Cor- busier who shaped agendas during the first half of the 20th Century, had either directly or indirectly supported the attitude of the times against ornament and had rejected ornament in the traditional sen- se on moralistic grounds. Nevertheless, even these pioneering modernist characters could not resist against the infectious desire for ornament and created their own means of ornament depending on the materials’ texture, system of structure and the displaying of functionality.30 And with no reservations at all, they had constructed buildings that can be labelled as examples of ornament. Today, along the line from the pioneers of modernism to minimalists, even pure white surfaces are considered as ornament. For this schizophrenic situation to be welcomed in the world of architecture firstly with moments of confession and confrontation and then with impassioned resignation, one had to wait until 1968 for Venturi and Scott Brown’s work called “Learning from Las Vegas” where they classified architectural products as “duck and decorated shed”. This particular work, in a way, became the symbol to express the return of ornament in a very radical form.
Towards the end of the 1960s when Robert Venturi began compensating esteem for ornament, he had clearly underlined the continuity of ornament. For him, “modern architecture uses expressive orna- ment and shuns explicit symbolic ornament.”31 In Venturi’s opinion, all of the simplistic modern façades are in fact a type of ornament. They turn the building into an ornamented whole, that is to a “duck”. As a matter of fact, it is undisputedly accepted today that in the designs of Mies van der Rohe how elements like wall, column and border turn into elements of ornament. Venturi has explained in the following words how he reads historical developments: “the steel I profiles on top of fire-resistant columns of Mies van der Rohe’s are as complex an ornamentation as were the wall pilasters which were applied subsequently on top of columns in Renaissance or Gothic buildings.”32 While there were many resear- ches done about the return to ornament, a direct answer to “Ornament and Crime” came only about 67 years later in 1975 with Joseph Rykwert’s article called “Ornament is not a Crime”. In this particular work, Rykwert does defend ornament once more but what is underlined here is not exactly whether architecture should include ornament or not, but that there lies a thought behind architectural style. Alongside a relief of oppression exercised through “modern morality”, what actually returned was not ornament applied on buildings as an extra layer, but was actually the ghost of the ideal of freeing the plan, the façade of the building and the structural system. However, for the world of architecture that had not yet become “Modern”, it was easier to add ornament alongside other categories like functionality, structure, economy, aesthetics, and so on.
The popular inclinations, which came forward at the beginning of the 1980s, were followed by collages and expressions of imagination. In those days, the “maestros” of the architectural world have interpre- ted all of their constructions as ornament. Among them Philip Johnson, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and others have produced the most well known examples. In these exam- ples, the buildings themselves have been turned into monuments of ornament, which Christofer Wren had criticised in the 17th Century and had been followed, by Venturi and his friends who repeated the same criticism later on for Modern Architecture. Nevertheless, the process of becoming a piece of orna- ment was not limited to buildings. After Hal Foster, who hailed Rem Koolhaas’ monograph S, M, L, XL (1995) designed by Bruce Mau with the following comment that “these are merely coffee-tables, but not elegant books to decorate your coffee-tables or sometimes to turn the pages of and discuss about”33, we can see that like fashion design, architecture has transformed into another media which lets ornament into our lives.
Renzo Piano’s public statement, about the Reu de Meaux residential built in Paris, is important to show that he, too, sees “life as ornament : “apart from being a place of shelter which is comfortable and fully functional, I wished to see that it is possible to build houses full of light, green colour and ornament even with limited budgets as well”.34
In 1999, Herzog & de Meuron built in Germany the Ebrswalde Technical School library over the façade of which is, in fact, simple; the two have deciphered ornament as a practice of articulation through application of material over another material by using a special technique. On the contrary, in the cons- truction of the National Stadium of the Republic of China—bird’s cage—for the Olympic Games the very same architects had made use of ornament not as an articulate material, but as a form of structure. In an understanding reminiscent of P.L.Nervi and S.Calatrava, they have transformed the structure to building itself and ornament.
As a result, it can be said that in the variety of research to be done on the subject of ornament and architecture, it is possible to generate different chronologies alongside different dates and figures. From Vitrivius’ architect, who painted the columns into blue, to Mies van der Rohe, who designed elegant steel columns, or to Herzog & de Meuron, who made designs of technological wonders in a digital era, the only change has taken place in the placement of the concepts of “beauty” and “meaning” as different categories within architectural design. As being the most instigating character of the age, the idea that Loos aimed at not attributing architecture or art with an essence or autonomy, but that he wanted to provide the space that each type of practice needs to improve itself and for cultural mobility points to a new field of study.35 Today, ornament is still a matter of controversy again and once more in relation to the intellectual tendencies, technological resources and the standards of aesthetics belonging to the age.36 Ornament is on the lookout for a proper place for existence among or in addition to so many diverse inputs such as the effect of surface, materials, style, technology, location, construction and mass. Nowadays, art of ornament is moving in to diverse directions, starting with its design to its production, in a more conceptual and more abstract way as an evolutionary product of digital technologies.
Caricatura Adolf Loos. Fuente: https://www.lacartela.es/
1 Corresponding Author: Hakn Saglam
2 See Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc. “Discourses on Architecture” (trans.) Henry Van Brunt,: James R. Osgood And Company.Boston 1875.
3 “A wide knowledge of history is requisite because, among the ornamental parts of an architect’s de- sign for a work, there are many underlying idea of whose employment he should be able to explain to Greek inquires. For instance, suppose him to set up the marble status of women in long robes, called Caryatides, to take the place of columns, with the mutules and coronas placed directly above their heads, he will give the following explanation to his questioners.” see.Vitrivius.”Mimarlık Üzerine On Ki- tap”. Vevki Vanlı Yayınları .1993. p.4
4 See. Alberti, The Ten Books on Architecture” The Leoni edition appeared in 1726, 1739 and 1755. The present is a complete reprint of the Ten Books on Architecture from the 1755 edition.
5 “Architectural Theory from The Renaissance to The Present”. Taschen ed. Thierry Nebois. 2006. p.12 6 Architectural Theory Volume I An Anthology from Vitruvius to 1870 (2006), (ed.) Harry Francis Mallgrave, UK, USA, Australia: Blackwell Publishing 7 See. Wendel Dietterlin , “Architecture of Division Symme- try and Proportion of the Five Columns”1598.From. Architectural Theory from The Renaissance to The Present”. Taschen ed. Thierry Nebois. 2006. pp.520-529. 8 From, Harry Francis Mallgrave, Architectural Theory Volume I An Anthology from Vitruvius to 1870 (2006), p.93. 9 See. Architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. (1656-1723), “Entwurf einer Historischen Architec- ture” from. A History of Architectural Theory from Vitruvius to the Present.Hanno-Walter Kru ,: Prince- ton Architectural Press. New York. 1994.p356
10 See.British Architect James Gibbs (1682-1754) “Book of Architecture” ibid.p. 250
11 See..Robert Morris (1701-1754) Those books are; “Esseys in Defence of Ancient Architecture” and “Lectures on Architecture” .From. Ibid.p..260
12See.Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). Ibid. p.88
13 See. Carl Alexander Heidelo (1789-1865). Ibid. p.420
14 See. Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852). Ibid. p.28
15 See. George Aitchison (1825-1910) From. Peter Collins. “Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture” McGill Queens University Press.1998.p 12
16 See. Robert Kerr, (1823-1904) ”A Development of the Theory of the Architecturesque” RIBA general Meeting 1869.pp.89-102
17 In the original text the ornaments can be catogarized in four topics; 1.Structure Ornamentalised, or Rendered in itself Ornamental. 2. Ornament Structuralised, or Rendered in Itself Structural, 3.Structure Ornamented (more or less super cially); and 4.Ornament Constructed. See also. Demirkan Özlem “Mi- marlıkta Strüktür ve Süslemei” Master Thesis. Gazi University. Institude of Science. Ankara. 2006.
18 See. Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc (1814–1879), from “Discourses on Architecture”, (trans.) Henry van Brunt, Boston: James R. Osgood and Co.1875. p.456.
19 See. Gottfried Semper. (1803-1879) .”The Four elements of Architecture and Other Writings” Mallgra- ve,H.F. Bermann, W., Cambridge University Press 1989. p 29.
20 See Owen Jones. (1809-1874), “The Grammer of Ornament”. from Harry Francis Mallgrave “Architec- tural Theory Volume I An Anthology from Vitruvius to 1870”, 2006, p. 497.
21 See John Ruskin. (1819 – 1900) “The Stones of Venice” Collins P. Wiley New York 1880. pp. 211-236. from http://openlibrary.org/books/OL7203263M/The_stones_of_Venice. last e day. 05.03.2011
22 See. Louis Sullivan, “Ornament in Architecture” 1892 from. Ed.H.F.Mallgrave, C.Contandriopoulos “Ar- chitectural Theory VoL.II an Anthology from 1871-2005” p.58
23 See. Hermann, Muthesius. “New Ornament and New Art” Trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave “.Dekorative Kunst”.NO:4:9 (1901) pp. 364- 365.from ıbid. .p.100.
24 Henry van de velde, “The New Ornament” Trans .Harry Francis Mallgrave. “Die Renaissance im Mo- drnen Kunstgewerbe.Berlin : Bruno &Paul Cassirer,1901. pp. 97-98..From Ed.H.F.Mallgrave, C.Contan- driopoulos “Architectural Theory VoL.II an Anthology from 1871- 2005”.p.116.
25 See.Sözen, Metin. “Mimarlık Terimleri Sözlüü” Istanbul 1986.p.123
26 See. Hans Poelzig “Mimarlıkta Mayalanma”. From “20.Yüzyıl Mimarisinde Program ve manifestolar” Ed. Ulrich Conrads.p. 4
27 E. Boyacıolu “Hans Poelzigin Örencisi Sey Arkanın Konut Tasarımı ve Modern Mimarlık” in Modernist Açılımda Bir Öncü:Sey Arkan ed. By Ali Cengizkan, A. Derin Inan, N. Müge Cengizkan, Mimarlar Odası Yayınları, Istanbul. 2010, p. 171.
28 Adolf Loos “Süsleme ve Suç”.From. “20.Yüzyıl Mimarisinde Program ve manifestolar” Ed. Ulrich Con- rads.Ankara.1991.p. 8
29 A.Sant Elia, F.T.Marinetti.“Fütürist Mimarlık” From. “20.Yüzyıl mimarisinde Program ve Manifestolar”.ed. U.Conrad.Ankara 1991.pp. 22-
30 See.C.B. Brolin “Architectural Ornament Punishment and Return” W.W.Norton and.co. New York.2000. pp.18-24
31 R venturi, D Scott Brown, S Izenour “ Learning From Las Vegas” Cambridge 1972. .p 101
32 Venturi, Robert. “Mimarlıkta Karmaıklık ve Çeliki.”Gevki Vanlı Mimarlık Vakfı. Ankara 1991. p.1
33 See Hal Foster .”Tasarım ve Suç” Istanbul 2004. p.39
34 From. Özer, N. “Austos 1998 Pritzker Ödülü Sahibi Renzo Piano” .Yapı.2001.no:204:pp. 94-110
35 See Hal Foster, . “Tasarım ve Suç” Istanbul 2004. p.10 36 In recent years we witness a lot of Works on ; “Computer Graphics” , “Geometric Ornamental Design” and “Digital Ornament”. For these topics see Deniz Balık, Allmer Açalye. “Çada Mimarlıkta Bezeme; Kısa bir Tarihçe ve Bibliyografya” Arredamento, Mimarlık no:12.2010 pp.69-74
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Este texto fue originalmente publicado en 2nd World Conference on Design, Arts and Education DAE-2013 Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 122 ( 2014 ) 126 – 133
Hakan Saglam is an Asst.Prof.Dr. TOBB University of Economics and Technology Department of Architecture Sögütözü Cad. No.43 06560 Ankara TURKEY