Patterns of Ornament: Technology and Theory in Contemporary Architectural Decoration
“Decoration… is suited to simple races, peasants and savages,” argued Le Corbusier in his 1923 publication, Vers Une Architecture. He continued, “Harmony and proportion incite the intellectual faculties and arrest the man of culture.” Le Corbusier was not the first to believe that ornament hindered societal development. With his statement, Le Corbusier announced his allegiance with earlier advocates of strict functionalism like Adolf Loos, author of “Ornament in Crime” from 1908, who had aggressively argued against the dominance of the popular decorative styles of Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession.
While Modernist arguments against ornament emphasized that decoration had previously been used as a distraction from the inevitable flaws of handcraftsmanship, today’s technological innovations have allowed architects to turn this functionalist argument back on itself. Made possible by new design and fabrication techniques, is the use of ornament in today’s interior architecture a testament to today’s technological progress?
Renovating the existing 1950s and 1960s school buildings of the Sint Lucas Art Academy in the Dutch town of Boxtel in 2006, the British architectural firm FAT looked to traditional decorative symbols to create a new identity. As a façade, they added a series of concrete screens, which hide the disparate exterior of the preexisting structures to create a new cohesive front. The architects incorporated a wealth of references—to “a nearby castle, the gabled buildings of the town, the architecture of collegiate buildings, and the history of the academy as a monastic painting school, as well as alluding to ruins”1—in a series of five “Pop Gothic” gables, rich with cookie-cutter tracery.
The traditional fleur-de-lis designs that puncture the thick concrete screens are also used on the interior. The stylized lilies are repeated to form geometrically patterned wallpaper that covers the surfaces of the school’s foyer and hallways. The flatness of both the interior and exterior of the Sint Lucas Art Academy is an example of what FAT calls the figural section, “a flattened architectural element taking the form of a slice, extrusion, fragment or surface for information, offering a rich but non-expressive, deadpan, or objective form of communication.”2 Like the billboards of Las Vegas, the figural section both rejects the Modernist concept of space and is charged with a communicative value. Embracing flat surfaces as vehicles for architectural communication, FAT intentionally challenges the fundamental principles of the Modernist movement.
Works by FAT illustrate the recently surfacing assertion that the Post-modernist style may be finding new outlets. Post-Modernism’s legacy and possible survival has been a popular topic of discussion recently, with a retrospective at London’s V&A Museum on view from September 2011 through January 2012, and conferences organized in London and New York. In May 2011, a dedicated issue of AD, entitled “Radical Post Modernism,” was guest-edited by the three principals of FAT—Charles Holland, Sean Griffiths and Sam Jacob—and Charles Jencks with the aim of looking at contemporary appearances of the Post-modern agenda. Jencks’s own new book, The Story of Post-Modernism, revisits the movement in its entirety and even labels Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp from 1954 as Post-Modernism avant la letter. But some of the projects put forth as examples of contemporary PoMo display some disarmingly familiar Modernist traits. For example, the exterior of Herzog & de Meuron’s three-story Eberswalde Technical School Library from 1999 is sheathed in flush horizontal courses of glazing and cast-concrete panels. On each band, a single repeated image encircles the building like filmstrips. Collaborating with artist Thomas Ruff, the photographs were silkscreened on the glass, and printed on the concrete panels. Jencks uses the term “semantic ornament” to describe the Warhol-like repetition of images on the façade, 3 but he simultaneously quotes Jacques Herzog as saying,
A building is a building. It cannot be read like a book. It doesn’t have any credits, subtitles or labels like a picture in a gallery. In that sense, we are absolutely anti-representational. The strength of our building is the immediate, visceral impact they have on a visitor. 4
The architects’ experimentation with imagery as ornament is decidedly un-Modernist. However, the rejection of symbolic meaning and complexity, as well as the contradiction between the architects’ statement and the evidence of decoration visible in the library, also makes this building antithetical to Post-Modernism. Ideas espoused by both the Modernist and Post-modern movement are still bounced around as part of current architecture discourse, and contemporary ornament is increasingly used as evidence of the surviving strength of Post-Modernism. But with today’s technological advances and the possibility of merging ornament and form, simply assigning current architecture to one of these two camps is to misunderstand them. There has emerged a new contemporary ornamental typology, the parameters of which are worth further investigation.
- FAT, “FAT Projects: Manifesting Radical Post-Modernism,” AD Radical Post-Modernism (September/October 2011), 84. ↩
- Sean Griffiths, “Virtual Corpses, Figural Sections and Resonant Fields,” AD Radical Post-Modernism (September/October 2011), 70. ↩
- Charles Jencks, The Story of Post-Modernism (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 193. ↩
- As quoted in Jencks, The Story of Post-Modernism, 193. ↩