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  • Sharanja De Zoysa

Architecture and Ornament

The early 20th century saw a shift towards an “aestheticisation of reality” (Fochessati,

2012) kickstarted by the Art Nouveau movement. At a time in which excessive ornamentation was a trend, Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” - was praised as “a Homeric cleansing of Architecture”; a title bestowed upon it by fellow Architect Le Corbusier (Long, 1997). While the public may not have bared a similar adoration for Loos’ ideals, it became clear thought his Goldman and Salatsch building that it was inherently possible to achieve a sense of grandeur through subtle elegance and minimalism. His building went on to be noted as one of the pinnacle works of architecture in Viennese Modernism. While Loos does set a trend for the future of building facades, his dismissal of ornament as a crime is arguable. Ornament may now be a lost art but the appreciation for heavily ornamented buildings of the past is still prevalent. Despite personal taste leaning heavier towards minimalism, this in no way restricts ones' ability to see a building adorned with ornament and marvel at its craftsmanship. As at the time, ornate facades held deeper meanings of political ideals, social constructs and religious beliefs. Therefore the value and sentiment behind it was often greater than the actual structure.

Traditionally ornamentation was not simply for aesthetic appeal; instead it served a greater purpose of being informative (Picon, 2013). In the past, elaborate buildings would only be affordable to people of a certain social standing, whilst those lower down the social ladder would own homes with very minimal facades. However Loos suggests that “ornament does not give zest to the life of a cultivated man” (Loos,1966), he deems ornamentation as “unsophisticated” and equates minimalism to heavenly brilliance. In the past ornamentation in Church buildings and places of spiritual significance served as warnings to those that may take up lives of sin, by presenting through elaborate carvings the torments of hell. Church tympanums (arched carvings above the doorway of the church) conveyed the contrast between heaven and hell by illustrating the fate of sinners and thus aimed to steer people away from lives of sin by driving fear into them. Loos suggests the lack of such in modern places of worship act as a “sign of spiritual strength” (Loos,1966), man has progressed to the point he no longer needs to be told not to sin. The extent to which Loos goes to justify his belief that ornament is crime is almost amusing, so much so that the Berlin weekly satirical journal ran a piece ridiculing Loos and “portraying him as a slightly unhinged zealot who wanted to report to the authorities all of those "criminals" who dared to use floral wallpaper pattern” (Long, 1997).

Ornament would often be used to make political statements about buildings as well. As Laugier believed nature set certain rules and similarly architecture had a set of rules - what was the “right” look and what was “wrong” (Laugier, 1755). Laugier believed columns should be un-ornamented as the ornamentation added no significance to the function of the column and preferred it to look natural. In contrast Claude Perrault tried to redefine bases and capitals of the French order for the Louvre Palace using added ornament. “In a variation on the Composite order, Perrault uses ostrich feathers instead of acanthus leaves to express the lightness of his proposed order” (Picon, 2013). Perrault’s bases and capitals

are far more intricate and delicate than the capital of the order used at the Temple of Jerusalem that it is compared to.

“Wood carvings played a major role… in plans for more comprehensive social reform… Elite Nordic reformers used ornament as a tool for improving the condition of rural inhabitants” (Ripan, 2019) Carving wooden ornaments for buildings ensured that agricultural workers weren’t idle during the winter as it was believed idle workers would be part take in illicit activities. It also acted as a “secondary occupation for peasant farmers” and a “new primary occupation for the rural poor” (Ripan, 2019). In 1797, French Architect Francios Cointeraux’s reform combining Architecture and Agriculture culminated in the coining

of the term ‘agritecture’, the linking of these two seemingly different disciplines was proof of the power of ornament in Architecture and other walks of life.

However Loos suggests that such work may now be a waste of manual labour as there is no longer a need to occupy the idle hours of agricultural workers. Though with technological advances similar workmanship can be achieved in much less time and at a lower cost. “In the wake of the economic crunch… minimalistic architecture flourished” (Architecture Update, 2017). Minimalism was a means of catering to the housing needs of people at a lower cost and in a shorter period of time. Minimalism proved to be an attractive/ aesthetically appealing solution. “Cultural evolution

is equivalent to the removal of ornament from articles in daily use” (Loos, 1966). Evolution refines the tastes of man and thus man must grow out of their praise for the overdone. The modern man must learn to appreciate minimalism and elegance through the understated. The age of subtlety and minimalism dawned on the “cultivated” sector of society before it reached the rest. Art has progressed, so Architecture certainly must follow, as the two tend to go hand-in-hand. Contemporary art showcases geometrical modernism such as Piet

Mondrian’s work, similarly Loos’s Goldman and Salatsch building in Vienna pays homage to the beauty of the understated, the “classic” or the “timeless”. Unlike its surrounding buildings that feature elaborate domes, the ‘Looshaus’ (as it is also known) features a plain facade with simple window boxes, the only touch of grandeur is the marble entrance and detailing of the building. Loos demonstrates how a building does not necessarily need to be garnished with ornament in order to exude a sense of elegant splendour. Simply replacing ornament with texturising a building through the use of different materials can create a similar effect. While the building’s aesthetic may not necessarily blend in, the awe factor

certainly ties in with that of buildings around it. This theme of understatement has developed throughout the 20th century and come to the place it is at now. Current day architecture takes on a similar minimalist approach to facades and the use of materiality to create a new look for the building. As predicted by Loos, ornamentation seems to be a thing of the past, though occasionally hints of it seem to surface.

Towards the middle of the 20th century ornamentation took on a new look and style as brought on by the age of Archigram. “Archigram was ‘in the image business’ and its schemes answered to fantasy above all” (Foster, 2011). When analysing the architecture of this time it is easy to spot a sense of detachment from society and history which was brought on by modernism’s dismissal of “popular taste and lack of allusion to architectural tradition - a failure that stemmed above all from its rejection of ornamental ‘symbolism’ in favour of formal expressionism”(Foster, 2011). Old miesian motto of modernist elegance -

“less is more” whereas with post-modern overload in design - “less is bore” (Foster, 2011). Ornament in architecture may have died down for part of the 20th century but it’s revival came with the categories of need based ornament, where the facade of a building would directly impact its function and on the flipside art based ornament, which served the mere purpose of aesthetic appeal. The post-modernist shed brought to light the latter function of ornament (as art), it was “a building with a rhetorical front and conventional behind, where space and structure are directly at the service of the program and ornament is applied

independently of them” (Foster, 2011). Ornament for ornament’s sake is a concept that will always live on simply due to the workings of the human mind, despite the argument that no one “judges a book by its cover”, it is in fact true that our eyes are immediately attracted to anything aesthetic.

Paul Valery suggests that “nothing is actually deeper than the surface, the skin” (Picon, 2013) and thus the skin of a building is merely that - a skin - there is no deeper truth to it. But like with other forms of art - poetry, painting, sculpting - there is a deeper truth. A building is more than just a building, it is a work of art, which is what the sketch on the right is trying to depict. It is more than just its use/function. The depth, flow and texture of a surface is what gives it that sense of symbolism, that meaning… abolishing ornament in architecture - while it would create a cleaner look of minimalism will also wipe away the ability of a building to invoke a deeper reflection of emotions in the passersby. Batay - Csorba architects tried to capture this sense of emotion and nostalgia in their Double Duplex building through the brise soleil feature in the front of the building. The angled pieces of wood create a blurred image of the outside world to those inside and vice versa. This blurred effect allows passerby to experience movement inside the house only through shadows, drawing inspiration from the childhood ideal of looking for images/ figures formed by clouds

(Architizer, 2019). This sense of nostalgia is brought to life by the ornamentaion created by the brise soleil. This also pays heed to the Baroque ideal of “an appreciation of the transience of things” (Rendell, 2006). According to Ruskin the quality of Architecture depends on the quantity, intensity of shadows; while the building remains static - the shadows give it life (Ruskin, 1849). These shadows are created by the ornament that adorn the building and give it dimension. When stood in a typical renaissance or gothic church that feelings of belittlement is not one to shy away from, instead is one to embrace. It is a

reminder that we are part of something greater than just ourselves, something bigger, something grander. While Loos tries to argue that the grandeur of ornamentation suggests a lack of sophistication in those that appreciate it, for arguments sake one cannot disregard the fact that even years later we still stand in awe of the grandeur of some of the timeless buildings that still stand amongst us. What leaves us in awe is not the enormity of the structure but the finer details: the craftsmanship, the time, skill, effort that goes into producing what we now attempt to replicate with machinery.

The true beauty of ornamentation often lies in its muse – nature. Contemporary interest in flow and modularity stem from the footprints of nature. John Ruskin’s abstract lines are drawn from nature and are the basis of ornament. The sinuous flow of a carving or detailing element often comes from the pattern of a wave or the imaginary lines of the wind (Picon, 2013). It is no surprise we stare in awe at these details on a building or work of art in much the same way we find nature breathtaking. As seen in the sketch, these abstract lines feature elements of mountainous terrain, branches of a tree, a shell like patterned swirl and waves. These basic elements of nature are the primary components that fill up the spaces between flowers and other such defined shapes. Many buildings draw structural inspiration from nature and such ornamentation highlights those features. Though simplistic

when broken down into Ruskin’s abstract line, when brought together to form a piece of art that adorns a buildings, they have the power to leave us mesmerised. Until studied closer

one may not as easily detect these individual lines. The facade of a building often holds as much detail as a picturesque landscape. No one ever gets tired of marvelling at the beauty

of nature and thus it is easy to assume that one cannot be in awe of traditional ornament. While nature remains God made beauty, it is through architecture that man can add to it and create our own form of beauty.

Antoine Picon however suggests that we can never truly do away with ornament as “part of the magic of architecture lies in the suggestion that an immoveable core exists beneath its ever-changing theories and modes of practice” (Picon, 2013). He believes that “the ornamental dimension lies on the border that separates enchantment and disillusion, magic and rationality. It makes architecture vibrate…” (Picon, 2013). It gives architecture an almost fantastical sense of life, which was quite evident in most works of Art Nouveau. Ornamentation in architecture serves a greater purpose than pleasure, yes, there is also the purpose of conveying information but it goes one step further, it has the ability to evoke emotion in the onlooker. When looking at ornamentation in architectural history we understand that the gothic epoch conveyed a sense of dramatisation of darkness, fear and the idea of a darker mythology to that suggested by the fragile, delicate beauty of the renaissance. The use of ornamentation as a means of playing with shadow and light conveyed a sense of hope and life. However Loos suggests that ornamentation in itself is criminal - while also being the creative genius of criminals by likening it to tattooing one’s body. “The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate… tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats” (Loos, 1966). However in much the similar way that tattoos are considered to be an expression of one’s self, ornamentation of a building gives it a unique and defining character. While the rest of the world praised Renaissance architecture, Loos condemned it, claiming, “Goethe’s death chamber is more magnificent than all the Renaissance’s grandeur” (Loos, 1966). Loos’s writings come across as more brutalist than his work suggests that his preferences lie with. Other architects such as Le Corbusier

take on a similar minimalist approach to architecture and they too agree with the dismissal or ornament in modern architecture. Loos believed that ornament was slowing down

the cultural progression of mankind and humanity. Though in fact it was cultural progression that was brining back the appreciation of ornament. While people sought after the understated beauty in most art forms, this did not in any way affect the appreciation and love of the past heavily decorative works. Though Loos’s writing suggests he was against all

forms of ornament, his Goldman and Salatsch building is proof that he too could not stray too far away from the allure of a decorative and decadent facade and more so an interior. The details of the interior tie in more with a more subtle style of Art Deco rather than brutal minimalism. Antoine Picon’s statement that “ornamentation always marks a threshold” (Picon, 2014) ties in with the focused use of the marble in the entryway of the ‘Looshaus’. It may be more materiality than ornament but arguably materiality could be considered a form of ornament as the end result and effect it creates is the same.

The Pennsylvania railroad station combines the use of materiality and traditional detailed ironwork ornamentation. This combination adds a little extra detail and fits in with the typical Art Deco style. The intricacy of the ironwork sets it apart from a mere material centered facade. Whereas ‘The House of Chutes – Lavie has a more material centered facade, though it too has perforated detailing on metal sheeting, the level or ornamentation is less. Nevertheless they both hold an equal sense of allure. The facade of the railroad is in keeping more with the ‘Looshaus’ sense of minimalism, while ‘The House of Chutes – Lavie’

holds a greater sense of modernist minimalism. Loos may have believed that brutalism was the future of minimalistic architecture, however the return of ornament brought with it a fresh outlook and revived concept of a traditional element of design. It is the facade and detailing of the building that truly gives it its character and more importantly a sense of intrigue. For as long as we have eyes, we will always be slave to aesthetics, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. This does not necessarily mean aesthetics always wins over function, rather that the two go hand-in-hand. Function may dictate aesthetic to a certain extent but it may

never do away with aesthetic, as Loos seemed to imagine it would. Frank Lloyd Wright believed the design of a building must echo the function of the building because architecture must stay true to itself (Wright, 1971).

Ornament can never die it will simply reinvent itself. Minimalism is a phase in ornamentation. For as long as ornament serves a greater purpose than aesthetic appeal, it will have a significant place. Where as when it is focused on mere aesthetic, its significance over time comes into question. Embracing minimalism does not mean disregarding or diminishing the value of past epochs in ornamentation, it simply means architecture is ever evolving as it should be. It will never be a question of “Is ornament in architecture dead or not?” Instead it will be a question of “What will ornament become next?”

References/ Bibliography

M|nz, L. and K|nstler, G. (1966). Adolf Loos, pioneer of modern architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, pp.226 - 231.

Fochessati, M. (2012). Art nouveau. 1st ed. Milan: 24 ORE Cultura, pp.19, 20.

Long, C. (1997). “Ornament, Crime, Myth, and Meaning,” in Architecture: Material and

Imagined. ACSA Press, Washington, D. C., pp.440-45.

Picon, A. (2013). Architecture as Ornament. Somerset: Wiley, pp.9 - 16.

Rendell, J. (2006). Art and architecture. London: I.B. Tauris.

Foster, H. (2011). Art-Architecture Complex. Verso Books.

Duncan, A. (1991). Art Deco. London: Thames and Hudson.

Jodidio, P. (2005). Architecture : Art. Munich: Prestel.

Wright, F. (1971). In the Nature of Materials: A Philosophy. London: Pitman.

Hedrick, C. (2016). Review: Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain: Myth and

Modernity, Excess and Enchantment, by Paul Dobraszczyk. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 75(3), pp.370-372.

Ripatti, A. (2019). Modernizing Architecture and Ornament on Mid-Nineteenth-Century

Scandinavian Farms. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 78(1), pp.68-89.

Sarah Rogers Morris (2013). Richard Nickel's Photography: Preserving Ornament in Architecture. Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism, 10(2), p.67.

Kinsella, J. (2010). Cloven Hoof, and: Architecture without ornaments. Colorado Review, 37(3), pp.122-123.

"Minimalistic Architecture: Practising 'Less is More'", 2017, Architecture Update

Ruskin, J. (1849). The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Laugier, M. (1755). An essay on architecture; in which its true principles are explained, and

invariable rules proposed, for directing the judgement and forming the taste of the gentleman and the architect, with regard to the different kinds of buildings, the embellishment of cities. London: printed for T. Osborne and Shipton.

Architizer. (2019). Double Duplex. [online] Available at:

[Accessed 6 Aug. 2019].

Fig 1 - Stracke, R. (2019). The Tympanum at the Church of St. Foy, Conques. [online] Available at:

tympanum.htm [Accessed 11 Aug. 2019].

Fig 2 - Picon, A. (2013). Architecture as Ornament. Somerset: Wiley, pp.12.

Fig 3 - Laugier, M. (1755). An essay on architecture; in which its true principles are

explained, and invariable rules proposed, for directing the judgement and forming the taste

of the gentleman and the architect, with regard to the different kinds of buildings, the

embellishment of cities. London: printed for T. Osborne and Shipton.

Fig 4 - (2019). File:AT-30462 Looshaus, Vienna, Michaelerplatzhu-

6590.jpg - Wikimedia Commons. [online] Available at:

wiki/File:AT-30462_Looshaus,_Vienna,_Michaelerplatz-hu-6590.jpg [Accessed 19 Aug.


Fig 5 - Pinterest. (2019). Goldman and Salatsch store, Vienna, 1910, Adolf Loos | exterior

design | Exterior design, Design, Abstract shapes. [online] Available at: https:// [Accessed 5 Jul. 2019].

Fig 6 - Architizer. (2019). Double Duplex. [online] Available at:

projects/double-duplex/ [Accessed 14 Jul. 2019].

Fig 7 - Picon, A. (2013). Architecture as Ornament. Somerset: Wiley, pp. 13

Fig 8 - (Building from study trip to Brussels)

Fig 9 - Nails, K. (2019). Why Philadelphia’s Suburban Station is in the heart of the city.

[online] Available at:


[Accessed 17 Aug. 2019].

Fig 10 - ArchDaily. (2019). Gallery of The House of Chutes-Lavie / Damien Fluchaire &

Julien Cogne - 1. [online] Available at:


chutes-lavie-damien-fluchaire-and-julien-cogne-image [Accessed 2 Aug. 2019].

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