OrnaMental POrnamentation. The Abstract and the Exuberant Body of Ornamentation

OrnaMental POrnamentation. The Abstract and the Exuberant Body of Ornamentation
Colletti, Marjan.
Published in:
AD Exuberance: New Virtuosity in Contemporary Architecture (guest.ed Marjan Colletti), March/April 2010, Profile No 204, pp 60-4.

The recent proliferation of digital techniques has brought an abrupt close to the seemingly enduring separation of tectonics and ornamentation in architecture. Small variations in software protocols and fabrication mechanics can result in the more or less exuberant articulation of ornate surfaces and volumes. Besides tooling systems and mechanics, one can also observe a twofold conceptual pursuit of such synthesis of digital ornamentation and tectonics, which can be termed the 'ornaMental' and 'pOrnamentation'. The first propels towards 'pure form' through abstraction, the latter towards the 'purely figural' through sensation.

Both these vectors are delineated in Gilles Deleuze's book Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation [1] and are described by the French philosopher as painting's chance to escape from the figurative in art. It can be argued that it is possible, within the digital domain of architecture, to trace a similar distancing from the digital design equivalent of the figurative in painting, the hyper-real rendering: the commercial illustration and depiction of architecture, that in all its sophistication and accuracy is not particularly intended to convey any theoretical, strategic or spatial properties. It is clear that such hyper-real simulations are per se 'hyper-fake'. Simulation replaces the real with a fictitious and artistic self-representation, a reiteration of its own – digital – properties and characteristics.[2] Architecture becomes a figuration of a hyper-fake simulacrum. It is only by avoiding it (as in Deleuze) that digital design can manage to articulate something purely original beyond the figurative rendering.

The OrnaMental
One way to distance CAD from the hyper-fake is by using the computer to perform an intellectual task that goes beyond simulation, representation and simulation of representation. Extrapolating from Bacon, it can be argued that the ornaMental is a digital, intrinsic cerebral expression of a synthetic, subjected and almost spiritual blurred code of abstraction. The 'digital' presumes a predominantly graphic mental system in order to construct a non-narrative and non-representational, yet mimetic'[3] digital code of ornamentation. The value of the ornaMental is that of aesthetics and application (understood as bodiless decoration, as software programming, and as global applicability – as method). Without a body (or volume), the intellectual task of the ornaMental becomes the articulation of a mediated system for a possible symbolic structure or strategy for digitality. The ornaMental is elegant. 

Islamic patternisation scripts, Modern art and geometry in particular provide the most likely reference material for this branch of contemporary digital design. As known, Islamic architecture omits figuration and constructs a taxonomy of patterns and ornaments that express a basic tenet of Islam: not to be misled into an imaginary and idolatrous world. Ornamentation here is not mere decoration, it has an intellectual, mental, metaphysical bias. That the Middle East has experienced an urbanistic/architectural/financial boom has also well served such developments.
The abstract, immaterial, partly indeterminate nature of the visual arts in the early 20th century has also deeply inspired Modern, experimental architecture, initially in its non-figural 2-D graphic domain and recently in its 3-D software modelling environments. Abstraction equals ornament.
And a similar generative logic and morphological syntax is nowadays being embraced by parametric and scripted generative techniques to produce myriads of complex, patternised, ornamental topologies with more and more 'mental' attributes – albeit that the intellectual endeavour here usually drifts towards the generic and the dogmatic, and away from the phenomenological and the experiential. Here, ornament is flat, it has no body, and neither has architecture.

Another way of avoiding the hyper-fake and hence the mimicked is by using the computer to perform a sensorial task. POrnamentation tends towards a digital, extrinsic corporeal impression of the isolated, deformed and dissipated forces of bodies. It is a purely sensual neural experience, of folded and distorted figures/shapes, that again is non-narrative and non-representational yet mimetic. The 'digital' here assumes a (porno)graphic explicit system to also construct digital mimesis. Ornament here is intrinsic to the exuberant dynamic form, to the (Baroque) deformation of convoluted lines and bodies – of Gestalten. Ornamentation here is not intellectual; pOrnamentation is to do with the visual consumption of the unequivocal athleticism and ergonomics of shapes and forms. In this instance, the values of ornament are not aesthetic and application, but esthesis and performance. Performance is understood as task or, better, as meta-task (what is to be performed is the performing of a task), and as staging (the reality of the task is not identical to the real-life task). Without an intellectual structure (or strategy), the sensorial task of pOrnamentation is for the body/figure to become the ornament, or for the ornament to become the body. Hence ornament and architecture are not flat but convoluted. POrnamentation is exuberant.

Such architectural repertoire is rooted in a different set of rather exuberant references and precedents; unusual or, rather, elusive to the mainstream digital theoretical discourse. The Jain and Hindu Indian temples, or those of the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs: all of these architectures manifest a truly exuberant figural architectural ornamentation. Different to Islam, religion here promotes the creation and representation of a hyper-world of fetish and of simulacra, of eccentric avatars and sexual idols. Or think of the Baroque and its passions, tormented visions and metaphysics; with all its magnificent figural, sensual, exuberant examples – Pietro da Cortona's The Triumph of Divine Providence (1633–9) or Gianlorenzo Bernini's The Cathedra Petri (1647–53)that blur the dimensions of space (3-D) and time (4-D). Some other pOrnamental features transpire in what may be called the contemporary ‘cyber-streamlining’ fever, sustained by an ever increasing amount of slick, fleshy, lofted furniture and building proposals – a very similar trend to that of the ‘streamlining fever’ of 1930s America.[4] The justification for the dynamic ornament is again very similar and to do with the manufacturing protocols: such machines and materials had then, and still have now, constraints that usually demand sharp and thin edges to be smoothed down.

The downside is that the ornaMental becomes decorative wallpaper, and that pOrnamentation may make you addictive and look always for more extreme formal contortions. As ever, albeit inherent to the thinking and tooling of digital – but not only – architecture, ornament cannot be the only feature of architecture; after all, inhabitation is not an abstract thought, not mere fiction, and space is not only the modelling of forces, of friction. But then again, ornaMental pOrnamentation does not belong to the everyday, as much as Bacon or the Baroque do not consider themselves, in Waldemar Januszczak's words, 'perfectly formed, exquisite, delicate, so civilized, precious', but rather as the unperfect pearl that gives the name to style: 'blobby, exuberant, misshapen, difficult to handle, and exciting in a deformed kind of way’.[5]

1. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, Continuum, London 2003, first published in France, 1981, p. 2 et al.
2. In fact, they are neither part of Realism as reality is not altered by the absence of reality effects, nor of Surrealism, which makes a clear distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. Instead, 'hyper-fake' renditions embed the unreal in its very own Baudrillardian ‘real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself’. Jean Baudrillard, ‘Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage Publications, London, 1993. First published in France, 1976.
3. ‘Mimetic’ here is derived from ‘mimesis’ (world making) and not from ‘mimicry’ (simulation). This differentiation is crucial, as the latter pretends that CAD performs best when simulating something – usually reality, structure, etc. Digital mimesis, on the other hand, is understood as world making, imagination and interpretation.
4.Once again there is no need for dynamic-looking, animate formed projects. However, this occurrence has a justification: smooth (Deleuzian) spaces, NURBS geometries and parametric models are described by complex, distinct entities that can be easily manufactured – milled, printed, thermoformed or cut – by specialist CAD/CAM machines. László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, Paul Theobald and Company (Chicago, IL), 1947, pp 53–4.
5. Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Baroque! From St Peter's to St Paul's’, BBC documentary, Episode 1, first broadcast on BBC4 11.03.2009.