The Return of Ornament

The Return of Ornament
Conversation between architectural historian Charles Jencks and architects Farshid Moussavi and Marjan Colletti, with questions from the floor.
Charles Jencks, Farshid Moussavi, Marjan Colletti et al (2009).
Published in:
Icon magazine 078, December 2009.
Online source: Iconeye

Charles Jencks Walter Pater said that all arts aspire to the conditions of music. Ornament particularly is a form of visual and haptic music which can be controlled and which can affect and move us without us having to know too much. Within ornament there are three degrees of depth from simple to complex, from abstract to meaningful.

Now this is ornament – it’s Rem Koolhaas morphing into Jacques Herzog, who’s morphing into Zidane (page 064). Why is it ornament? It’s ornament because they’re all bald, they’re all unhappy, they’re all angry and they’re all grimacing. It’s a computer morph which tells you that in the digital age morphing and transformation is really possible with great versatility and that’s one of the strongest motors behind ornament today. It’s kind of mindless and it isn’t often transformational.

The first degree of ornament is the obvious level at which we can get baseline agreement, that the construction elements and the structural elements are here tied together. The constructional and structural ornament reaches a kind of pitch in the academies and in people like Lars Spuybroek and Nox and an American academic world. In particular, as Rem has said, in Dubai it’s vernacular Zaha, everybody is doing structural and constructional ornament.

The second degree is semantics. Snøhetta took nine years to build the Alexandria Library in Egypt, circular like the sun, with all sorts of crypto-Egyptian meaning in it. The world’s library in Alexandria, now rebuilt for a digital age. It cuts letters of all of the five thousand alphabets in the surface of the limestone, it’s obviously semantic, telling you “this is a library”. The only thing which rebounds I think, kind of disastrously, is that it doesn’t say anything. There are 5,000 words babbling – it’s a kind of fallen tower of babble. Why say nothing? For the classic reason that the architect doesn’t know what to say. Why doesn’t he know what to say? Because the client hasn’t really interacted with him, or them in this case.

The 19th century criticised construction as ornament, they said it was expensive and it leads to all sorts of problems of resolution – instead, decorate your construction. That was the Ruskin and Morris position. Then Perret, the teacher of Le Corbusier, said don’t decorate your construction, decoration always hides a fault in construction. FOA’s John Lewis store in Leicester is wonderful construction. It is ornament not as construction but as rotational panels which can be put together in different ways to screen … I think it’s the most beautiful example of ornament in the last ten years in Britain. It’s beginning to be transformational ornament, which is the third degree.

I want to end with Gaudí [and The House of Bones], who I still think is the touchstone of this. You may know that Catalan, being a kind of separatist culture, wanted to get out from the mother dragon in Madrid. If you follow the metaphor through [the building’s] parts you can see my point that the fourth degree of ornament is one in which there is an overall message that the architect and the client have worked out and that gives it a greater resonance.

Farshid Moussavi In my new book I categorise ornament as all those elements that contribute to the sensorial performance of built forms. This could be the entire form, it could be just the envelope or it could be just the surface of the cladding. I want to insist that form and ornament are in fact the same thing, and so I would say ornament never went away. There have always been elements that provide forms with sensations. So the question is how we define and construct those elements; in other words, how do we define ornament today?

If we were to acknowledge the sensorial performance of forms, built forms, we would acknowledge that they have a function, they perform a functional role. In a way I think that we are burdened by a very outdated definition of function, entirely out of sync with how other disciplines and fields understand it. If we are to broaden our concept of function beyond utility then we start including sensorial roles as part of the function of forms and that’s basically what has led to my two books. Now this opposition of function to ornament is representative of our dualistic thinking towards how we approach the environment. I would say up until the end of the 20th century in architecture it probably initiated from this duality which Plato set up between matter and mind, so built forms are basically subject to this duality of physical infrastructure and ideological super-structure. There are structural rules, physical rules that dictate the form of buildings and then there are symbols and ornaments added to perfect this art of building. Since ornament is historically an imitation, we haven’t had to think about how it is produced and therefore we continue this binary opposition between organicism and ornament.

Perhaps we could start thinking that forms have multiple functions in architecture, and each of these functions generates as a result of how architects use the different elements at their command to produce singular forms. It is a result of the singular way that these elements come together that we give specific functions to forms and we produce specific expressions and specific ornaments also.

Now these are then processed by the senses and produce different affections, different meanings, feelings and emotions. It is for this reason that I think we need to move on in how we discuss the role and performance of ornament today from meanings to affects – not because meanings are not relevant or do not exist but that meanings are not produced by architects, they are produced by individuals. Architects produce ways of affecting individuals.

I would say once we consider ornament as an architectural production with the function to trigger new affects and sensations then we approach ornament creatively.

Marjan Colletti The tectonic and the ornamental are things that until a couple of years ago were thought different, but that was a technological barricade. The forces bringing them together I call ornaMental and pornamentation. They represent the abstract and exuberant bodies of ornamentation. After decades of collaging – say, postmodernism and perhaps also deconstructivism – I think architecture has finally managed to move into a hybrid form that overlaps disciplines. Digitality and ornament get rid of the linear approach of design, manufacturing and use. They are now convoluted, sort of folded inside out. With digital technology, small variations allow you to create more or less exuberant surfaces or volumes.

In some of our work, the ornament – the graphic design – is intrinsic to the design of the building, with the danger, obviously, that ornament doesn’t have a body, it’s flat and abstract. In my own research I try to establish a vocabulary that escapes abstract art and develops a different set of tools and languages, icons and semantics that can be used to develop perhaps its own kind of ornamentation. It’s ornaMental, so it’s mental, intellectual. Two-dimensional digital drawings allow precise creations of space that analogue drawings won’t allow. So just by zooming in with the software, you can enter a space that is actually not there. It creates indefinite spatial possibilities. So the ornament itself is architecture; there’s nothing else to be discussed about function, it’s just the ornament itself.

The second trajectory I would like to discuss is pornamentation. Here, the computer is performing a sensorial task, so it’s not mental. Obviously it’s graphic, almost pornographic. It’s to do with convoluted bodies, with the consumption of athletic forms and shapes. It’s a completely different agenda that is not about aesthetics but the senses, sensuality and performance. Rather than elegance, I think this trajectory is propelling us towards exuberance in architecture. In our practice, Marcus and Marjan, we use another set of references that are not Islamic patterns, not modern art, but come from other religious contexts. So, Islam might shy away from figuration, but Hindu temples in southern India are basically orgiastic assemblages of bodies. We’re interested in how that can be translated into a contemporary, digital architecture, a fleshy understanding of decoration and ornament. With pornamentation, it’s not clear what is the body of the building and what is the body of the user. I also think we really have to be careful not to regard “digital” as being not embedded in a wider architectural history. It’s very important to see that even  pornamentation is coming back in waves, as much as exuberance, as much as austerity.

We look a lot at baroque because we see it as the most natural development after the digital tectonic phase, which was very much to do with structural efficiency and the optimisation of minimal structures. And the baroque is more exuberant, it managed to emphasise the celebration of space, it managed to synthesise the arts so there’s no boundary between painting and sculpture or sculpture and architecture, architecture and urbanism. This is the next stage we are propelling towards. Students are pursuing this quite intensely.

Q. Justin McGuirk What’s interesting is the two extremes of this discussion. Farshid, you’re arguing that ornament is a functional thing, and Marjan you’re talking about the celebration of space. I’m interested in this idea of ornament as celebration. The baroque was in a way the Catholic church celebrating its power. What are we celebrating today?

MC I would like to celebrate variety within architecture. There’s a very strong franchising happening in architecture which is quite clear about what it should do and what it should not do, and I would like to open up the game and see digital architecture as a huge potential for expression rather than celebrating only protocols or process or efficiency. I’d like to celebrate the freedom of expression, but also somehow celebrate friction and debate. It might be the end of exuberance because of the financial crisis and sustainability and political awareness and so on. Perhaps it’s the end of stupid exuberance and the beginning of an exuberance of different voices, and that’s what I would like to celebrate.

CJ I’m fascinated by how the debate is still in a way 19th century. Because you said, Marjan, that the ornament itself is architecture, and [Reyner] Banham said you could divide architects today (that is 1960) between those who believed in a Ruskinian view and those who didn’t. All the second were modernists and all the first didn’t get it. You’re a Ruskinian, because Ruskin said ornament is architecture. You, being radical about it, claim it’s avant garde and I think that’s very interesting because in fact you’re almost an iconoclast, you’re against icons. So we have here a dichotomy which has been around a hundred years, since Adolf Loos. In modernism in the 1920s it was all about space and light, up to Richard Meier, and now we’ve added to the acceptable abstract elements, we’ve added pattern and ornament and form. In the 1970s the great debate was between constructional ornament of the late modernists, who would do dia-grids. Ornament as structure was attacked by Venturi who said the proper architecture was the dumb box, the decorated shed. So I don’t think the dialectic today has really deepened and that’s why I would cut it in a different way. I would talk about depth of ornament and say the greatest depth relates us to nature, music and the meaning that the client gives. This is where I think the danger of abstraction is and where the digiterati are today – they have gotten rid of the client, and once you get rid of the client you can’t discuss what the building is about. You’re going to put digital letters all over your libraries but not know what to say. So I want to get meaning back. To answer the question, what is the subject matter? I don’t think you can answer that outside of society, therefore the dialogue of the digital has to take place outside of abstraction. It has to engage because it’s spending the money of the client in the end. I would say to the digiterati, talk to the client.

Q. Oliver Domeisen Farshid was talking about the limitation of the term functionality to utility, I think that’s probably the big debate at the moment. It’s very grammatic because we’re trying to somehow establish a common notion of ornament that allows us in architecture to all work together and I think if we open it so much that it becomes anything from air-conditioned surfaces to form and pattern, that it is too much. Ornament is not pattern and it’s not form in itself. When ornament becomes form it ceases to be ornament, it becomes culture, it becomes an autonomous piece of art. That’s why Herzog & de Meuron are successful examples because they have managed to integrate artistic practice in their everyday, and that kind of material reality of ornament I think leads us to the essence of the definition of pattern: it’s constructing something in material terms that creates an idea or an ideal that goes beyond the utilitarian. What do you think?

FM Obviously I disagree. In response to this I would go back to what Charles said about depth and meaning, though I have my own take on it. I don’t know how one could argue that there are not other functions to architectural forms than just utility. We will never agree on that. I would say that there are different functions and I think we should broaden it, because buildings do function in many different ways other than just their utility. The whole point of connecting ornament to function is precisely to make it productive and in order to assess its meanings relative to how it affects utilitarian matters. If you commission Zaha and Zumthor to design a hospital you can be sure that they are both perfectly able to produce what is called a functional building, but they will embed entirely different sensations in them and ultimately the way the patients get cured will be very different. You cannot separate them and in a way my new book, with all due respect, is very much against the take that you are putting forward where ornament is by itself and there is no negotiation, friction, overlap. You could call it the context, you could call it the structural issues, there are many different layers that built forms have and I think they give us a way to assess one ornament versus another and to assess how they perform – you could call that meaning.

MC It’s also very much to do with the context. Obviously you can differentiate the Calvinists from the southern European Catholics. I grew up in a Catholic environment and I’m supposed to be a sinner and it’s fine as long as you say so, whereas in ornament within a more Calvinist more diagrammatic environment it’s completely different. It’s not about techniques and I think, frankly, we all [have to] overcome the paranoia of form and structure, it’s not about that, it’s really about how we push identity in a global context because we all interact within a global context. Ornament is a very strong semantic entity to define identity, and what I disagree with [in] modernism, with the international style, is that it wasn’t contextual.

Q. Douglas Murphy This idea of “affect” is interesting but it’s used like an abdication of specificity. There’s maybe a lack of direction in the use of all this ornament. It’s perhaps a sense of powerlessness in the wider context of where architecture should be going and the problems it faces. I think that’s the most significant connection to the 19th century, this sense of distraction, of looking around for some way to get away from what’s coming. Do you agree?

CJ I do think, if I could talk about powerlessness for a second, architects of course don’t have much power at a world level. They design one percent of the world’s buildings and they influence another 30 percent. In other words powerlessness is part of culture when faced with the market. Architects have been relatively powerless since the 19th century.

There’s actually a lot of agreement here on the importance of ornament and being responsible for it. Having returned to ornament, it’s rather liberating if we could do that and have some power or relationship with society. But you get the situation where architects compete without the freedom, that is to say they compete on the level of utility, to be the cheapest or undercutting or styling or some other way. So instead of celebrating our freedoms we get ourselves into a Darwinian game. Because, let’s be clear about this, that’s what the big firms do, they try to sell their product, not with freedom but with necessity and I think that’s what makes ornament tortured today instead of shared with a client. In other words, the minute I talk about aesthetics I lose the client. Foster and Rogers never talked about aesthetics. They always sell it as necessity. I think we have to admit the return to ornament, if we could get the client to return there, we’d have more freedom.

More info and videos:

Watch videos: