“The urge to ornament one’s face and everything within one’s reach is the origin of fine art. It is the babble of painting. All art is erotic.”
[Adolf Loos 1908]
Although the ideology of Modernism once rejected the supposed decadence and wastefulness of the mass production of ornament, it is indisputable that over the past ten years entirely new construction and manufacturing processes have made the return of ornament economically viable. 3D computer modeling and scripting tools can now define very complex formal language and facilitate mass customization processes from CNC milling and laser cutting to interactive systems and robotics.
What interventions can be valuable when it comes to ornament in architectural design, and how can ornament be applied to architecture in a most effective way? Several examples, theories and definitions dealing with ornament will be discussed in order to come to a conclusion. The focus will be on contemporary architecture and the increasing knowledge on innovative technologies.
SEVERAL DEFINITIONS OF ORNAMENT
It is hard to define the term ornament unambiguous since the term ornament can describe many kinds of objects or forms of art. The following dictionary definitions are found:
Oxford Dictionary: 1. a thing used, or serving to make something look more attractive but usually having no practical purpose. Examples are listed regarding buildings, objects, ones character and music.
Cambridge Dictionaries: 1. an object which is beautiful rather than useful 2. a formal decoration which is added to increase the beauty of something. Examples are listed regarding buildings, objects and urban design.
Merriam Webster: 1. something that lends grace or beauty 2. a manner or quality that adorns. 3. An embellishing note not belonging to the essential harmony or melody. Examples are listed regarding buildings, objects and ones character.
All of these definitions imply that ornaments are supposed to add something positive to something else. By which means the ornament can be positively evaluated is not defined. It seems as a subjective definition. But I think there is a reason why the word ornament has not been described as an addition to something that is meant to be beautiful. In all three definitions, the ornament adds something beautiful to an object, in any case, and if does not, it is not defined as such. This is the interesting part of this topic and a reason to consider to redefine the meaning and actual value of ornament on a deeper level.
MEANING OF ORNAMENT
Adrian Small concludes in his thesis that ornament is something to entertain us, something that originates from our desire to celebrate, communicate and be playful. He argues that architecture is a public platform to share our experience and delight in a collective way (Small 2009). He certainly makes a point with this idea, except that communication on a cultural level, as he describes, is only an additional effect that can be fruitfully exploited as a by-effect of the design of ornament. In other words; the designer can chose to communicate a message through ornament, but ornamentation has a more profound reason of its existence. Ornament is a property of built architecture that we need in order to interpret spaces efficiently and perceive them as a coherent whole.
The human mind evolved partly in order to recognize and analyze hierarchical structures in nature, which is why artificial structures that are not hierarchically organized are often perceived as alien. A recognition mechanism based on hierarchical subdivisions is built into the human consciousness and therefore we need hierarchy in complex structures to perceive a structure as a coherent whole. Ornament can help to relate different scale regions to each other. It can also embody a level of scale itself in order to allow people to relate to an object or building (Salingaros 2000).
Nikos Salingros argues that architecture can profit from the knowledge other sciences already have deduced from natural growing processes, in order to reflect the hierarchy of scales as we see in nature. He studied the interdependence of the levels of scale from a mathematical point of view, already applied in biology and computer science, and states that higher scales result from constraints expressed in terms of the higher scale being imposed on lower scales (Salingaros 2000). Although his theories in general certainly make a lot of sense, it can be said that they cannot unconditionally be applied to architecture, since architecture will always keep on being an artificial way of materialization in life. Buildings do not grow by themselves as organisms or natural structures do. Architects do have to deal in almost any case with given boundaries in the sense of a predefined construction site, spatial planning and structural limits. Next to that, it is useful to take into account the principle of hierarchy, and integrate this in the design process. The designer can improve his skills by focusing on the interdependent scales evolving from his or hers design decisions. This could mean in some cases that the designer starts with the outline of a building and develops the interior according to a hierarchical way of scaling down until the scale of ornament and texture is reached. In this way, the architectural ornament can respond to the characteristics of the higher scale, as much as the higher scales are derived from the lower scale in nature.
Ornament in the realm of architecture can function to improve the hierarchy of designs and must relate with the boundary conditions of the larger scale region in the shape hierarchy of a building design.
ON THE FUNCTION OF ORNAMENT
Ornament is often found in parts of a building that require attention, whether it is to disguise particular parts or to amplify specific features of a building. Often ornament is used in a transformation zone, in between things, at the margins or perimeter; where a door meets a wall, a façade touches the ground, or even when a square meets the street. Those parts define the border of a designed shape or object. If specific features of a building are not manifesting themselves clearly, the inhabitant can feel insecure of how to use a space or how to find his way through the space. Making use of ornament in between a main door and the wall, can guide the inhabitant in its direction.
Ornament also helps to disguise obvious construction details. For example a construction joint, or visual levels of scale which are not wished to be seen because they disturb the harmony of a space.
THE ROLE OF ORNAMENT AT LARGER SCALES
The shape of ornament knows no absolute of scale. But the roughness and materialization of the ornaments, depending on the level of scale, can make them into completely different artifacts.
If looking at an image of a galaxy and a planet. What is drawing one’s attention? And what happens if nothing is to draw the attention? If looked at images of space, it can be seen that the objects, like galaxies or planets, are recognized not only by its very own body but also by levels of visual information surrounding it. In space, the patterns of these transition zones are radial, since growing processes in space don’t have a limiting border condition, and do not have to deal with gravity. The images below are inverted in order to focus on the forms, without necessarily associating a meaning to the picture. The levels of “ornament” lead the eye to the essential, or help to prevent the eye from being distracted by chaos in the field of vision. Here we also see that the swarm of stars, which can be interpreted as ornament is serving the human brain to focus on an important area in space. These transition zones between the whole and the object define the object itself. Depending of the characteristics of this zone, we can value the rate of importance and often give a meaning to the object. These transition zones, communicate the properties of their inner regions.
Transition zones can be found everywhere. Let us zoom in to our planet. How is land enclosed by water? Where does it start, where does it end? Transition zones amplify the transition between objects or two levels of scale within objects. At these coast lines, the character of the space is clearly visible and can be interpreted faster by the appearance of the transition zone. The labels, beach, river, rocky coastline and harbor become very clear to the human eye when the transition zone is in sight.
A city like Amsterdam is very clearly structured. The center is embraced by several canals. Every ring prepares the passenger for the approaching city-center. The rings become narrower as the passenger approaches the core; this doesn’t only simplify the urban plan of Amsterdam for people residing there, it also shapes the city according to the human scale, once one is in that area, one can start seeing the faces of people on the other side of the canal which feels comfortable and safe. In case of the island of La Gomera, the mountains enclose the land. The mountains go down steep as the sea level is reached. The inner core is sheltered from wind, and is therefore suitable for agriculture; settlements come into being because the area protects one from the sea and elements. The artificial coastline of Tokyo Bay shows the emergent effect, humans have had on the area. The coastline is along the years exploited for harbor activities, industry, and transportation. The transition zone along the coastline makes that very clear. The aerial view is even beautifully shaped, because this is the way it worked, the people responded to the lake in a coherent way. Along the coast line of Greenland the water has been flooding the land for years and its traces of erosion and rivers are clearly marking the hinterlands nowadays. The river splits in a fractal way and becomes wider as it approaches the coast line. Organisms living there can, among other things, orient themselves based on these patterns of riverbeds.
At these pictures of Cairo, Venice and San Francisco the entrances of the cities can are clearly marked by a portal or gateway, in other cases cities can also slowly manifest themselves and slowly show a higher density of built environment. These transitions tell people something about the city they are approaching. The intervention of a bridge, a big sign or a portal communicates a clear message in the sense that the space after the portal will have a different character than the space before. This will help people to adjust and respond to the space they are going to inhabit.
MANIFESTATION OF ORNAMENT AT BUILDING SCALE
Nowadays in contemporary architecture we see a revival of the use of ornament. A lot of patterns are generated by software and transformed into, or applied to, construction elements. Complete façades are covered with these patterns, complex forms are generated in order to stand out, and buildings are subjects to experiments with new technologies, concepts or structural challenges. It is remarkable that ornamental interventions which are responding to the building shape or human use of the building are hard to find in contemporary projects.
La Grande Arche de la Defense is designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and built in 1989 in remembrance of the French revolution and its shape refers to the Arche de Triomphe. Besides its symbolic meaning, this huge building seems to evoke, like many other contemporary public buildings, an excitement of its being unfamiliar. As Nasar concludes in his research on urban design aesthetics, designs seeking for excitement should encourage high complexity, atypicality, and low order (Nasar 1994). This can be fruitful because in this case the building accommodates a key function in the Parisian business district and is very effective in carrying out its importance and meaning to the city. Remarkable is the pavilion in the courtyard, which stretches in between the main building. This pavilion is an example of a response to the border conditions of the larger scale. The subdivision of the roof defines the next scale and the subdivisions of the roof sheets have an ornamental feature, an aperture in the center, the collection of the apertures creates a pattern that is deduced from the larger scale. This is a beautiful example of a scaled hierarchy in the design. This displays a clear order and therefore makes the artifact readable to people.
The Ministry of Culture in Paris (2005) has been redesigned by Francis Soler Architecte. He unified two existing buildings by wrapping them in a continuous mesh of steel lace. By doing this, he succeeded in a visual unification of two buildings which each came with a different architectural style. The steel meshes are all framed, similar to each other, and they respond to the windows of the original buildings. Nevertheless, they do not respond to the roof very well and they don’t show any variation in density or variation in shape according to the spaces behind. It is a missed chance, since the curved shapes could have directed the eye of the passenger more strongly to the entrance, main spaces or to the outline of the building.
Simone Giostra designed this major color LED display combined with a photovoltaic system as a curtain wall of the Xicui Entertainment Complex in Beijing, harvesting solar energy by day and using it to illuminate the screen after dark, mirroring a day’s climatic cycle. Although the façade is a strong reference to the typical high resolution screens that cover Beijing’s facades with advertisements, the facade displays a specially commissioned program of video installations, and live performances by artists. The technological façade is repeatedly subdivided in an almost fractal way, which makes the pattern easy to read, but the totality of façade completely covers the building and doesn’t refer to the function of the building or the organization of the building at all. In that sense, this façade is not successful in relating the building to the people at all. What would be interesting is to make the visuals respond to the interior organization of the building. The interactivity of the façade has a lot potential to arrange and display the hierarchy of the building features dynamically and could even respond in real time to pedestrians or time.
The entrance of the Shah Mosque of Isfahan has a very clear hierarchy, inspired by fractals as often seen in nature. Its vault repeatedly splits as if it has been evolved by a growing process. The vaults and sub-vaults are ornamented according to their shapes. This is a very balanced design and therefore intrinsically beautiful to people. Present computer technologies like scripting, 3d modeling and rapid prototyping, could be exploited to achieve ornaments with the intrinsic quality of fractal algorithms and make them adapt to the shapes and features of new or even existing buildings.
In the example of the façade print of a portrait of Mies van der Rohe, designed by OMA for the Tribune Campus Center in Chicago, we recognize a hierarchy in the sense that the sampling of the images consists out of smaller images, all different and shifting in grayscale as seen from a distance. It is probably meant as a reference to the statues of celebrated people or gods on classical buildings and is an amusing feature, but the overall application of the image covering this particular façade is totally unsuccessful. The image does not match with the shape of the building. It feels like it is a random picture that was pasted on a part of the building that was not designed to display an important message at all. In this example, the ornament is not effective in adding quality to the building.
This example of a dome shaped pavilion is inspired by natural patterns as seen in micro-organisms. A range of optimized dome designs is generated with help of Evolutionary Computation to improve the structural performance of the design. In this case the designer had the possibility to adjust the parameters and to choose from a range of best performing structures. The design is evolved based on previously defined boundary conditions and therefore has a natural range of scales. These kinds of generative algorithms can become part of the designer’s toolbox. It can help the designer to select the best option out of a wide range of complex variations of parametrically defined models.
The masonry examples show different ways of dealing with patterning of bricks. A chaotic pattern case make the façade appear as an even surface again, since the human brain cannot process these kinds of patterns very well, the level of detail cannot be analyzed and translated into sensible information. The second picture of a prefabricated wall, perfectly aligned, doesn’t hold much information either, no relief or change of color, density or patterns. The third image shows a façade with more texture, the slightly varying colors of the stones give an intrinsic impression of the surface while the window frames are clearly marked and show the degree of privacy and the different character of the upper floor compared to the ground floor where the large window opens up the space behind.
ESSENTIALS FOR THE DESIGNER OF CONTEMPORARY ORNAMENT
Ornaments are most effective when they are consciously embedded in the shape of the design of the object.
The hierarchy of scales as evolved in nature is always arranged from the bottom up. In the artificial world of architecture, it makes sense to interpret this phenomenon not always literally as a growing process, but to accept that a clear hierarchy is naturally better processed by the human brain and therefore it is necessary to take the scaling and interdependence of different parts of a building in to account when designing.
The designer should thoroughly analyze the existing boundary conditions of a space or a building before generating or drawing an ornament. The analysis should concern the shapes of the existing parts of the building as well as the use and meaning of the spaces. The ornament can get a deeper quality if it consists out of multiple levels of scale as seen in the example below.
Computers and technology can play a great role in the generation of intelligent and responsive patterns as building designs become more complex and interactive. Parallel to that, fabrication methods are shifting toward customization and large collections of unique parts. The time is there to bring ornamentation to a higher level.
Cameron, Ellen. “Kent Bloomer:The Necessity of Ornament.” AArchitecture, 2009: 2.
Domeisen, Oliver. “The Quest for Ornament.” Architecture & Detail: Facades 2 (2009): 178-190.
Loos, Adolf. “Ornament and Crime.” 1908.
Nasar, J.L. ” Urban design aesthetics: The evaluative quality of building exteriors.” Environment and Behavior 26 (1994): 377-401.
Salingaros, Nikos A. “Hierarchical cooperation in architecture, and the mathematical necessity for ornament.” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research (Locke Science Publishing Company) 17 (2000): 221-235.
Small, Adrian M. “Delight, the Function of Ornament, an Exploration of its Relevance.” Thesis, RMIT, Delft University of Technology, Delft, 2009.
Trilling, James. Ornament, A Modern Perspective. Washington: University of Washington Press, 2003.
van Embden Andres, M. V., P. von Buelow, and M. Turrin. “Structural DNA – Genetic Exploration of Biological Micro Structures for Architectural Applications.” Southwest ACSA . Albuquerque, 2009. 110-124.