Saturday, May 14, 2011

Do Computers Mean It's Time To Consider Ornamentation in Architecure Again?

A few weeks ago I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. That visit alone is worthy of several blog posts, but today I'd like to dwell on one specific topic that has been on my mind.

As one exited the exhibit, there was the obligatory shop where you can purchase the usual trinkets - books, T-shirts, postcards, etc. One of the items you could purchase were lasercut screens of Frank's elaborate designs in metal or wood. You see and buy these screens online here:

Laser cutting is defined by Wikipedia this way:

Laser cutting is a technology that uses a laser to cut materials, and is typically used for industrial manufacturing applications, but is also starting to be used by schools, small businesses and hobbyists. Laser cutting works by directing the output of a high-power laser, by computer, at the material to be cut. The material then either melts, burns, vaporizes away, or is blown away by a jet of gas, leaving an edge with a high-quality surface finish. Industrial laser cutters are used to cut flat-sheet material as well as structural and piping materials.

With the lasercutting technique, a design can be imputed into a computer with microscopic precision, and cut into a variety of materials, including wood, metal, stone and composites (plastics). The pattern only need by inputted once, and it can be repeated essentially infinitely, with no errors. It can be used to create all sorts of patterns which can be mass-produced, from a simple cutout to elaborately shaped pieces which would take large amounts of time to recreate by hand. For an example of lasercutting used extensively in a facade (for better or worse), see the following:

I find the aesthetics here questionable, and the technique rather gimmicky, but it is an example of what can be done with the technology.
Lasercutters are becoming quite common, and they are only the beginning of what promises to be a revolution in the way computers are used to create designs in the real world. One technique that is getting a lot of attention is 3D printing. 3D printing allows a three dimensional shape to be inputted into a computer connected to a 3D printer, which then builds up the object by laying down successive layers of some material until the entire form is built up. The size of the end product is limited only by the size of the printer itself. Some have enthused about the 3D printing of entire buildings, and work has been done in this direction. To me, this is rather bizarre-who would want a building to comprised out of one monolithic material? That seems incredibly boring, not to mention pointless. However, the ability to mass produce shapes, no matter how elaborate, in a variety of materials, is the real intriguing part to me.

Another digital technique is the use of robots in actual construction. There have been a few pilot projects which have used robot bricklayers to lay bricks in elaborate forms that would have been time-consuming and technically difficult for a traditional mason to accomplish by hand, not to mention costly. These elaborate brick layouts point towards methods to derive elaborate shapes that would not have been possible before, and certainly would not have been cost-effective in traditional construction.

The question is - does the use of computers mean it is time to reintroduce a degree of ornamentation in architecture?


Ornament has been a part of human art since before recorded history. It appears to be something innate in the workings of the human mind. In fact, it predates all known architecture. One of the best-loved artifacts in the British Museum is the swimming reindeer sculpture from approximately 13,000 years ago. This stunning work of art was carved from the hard keratin of a woolly mammoth tusk. While maintaining the unique overall shape of the tusk, material is chipped away to depict two swimming reindeer, a male and a female. The carving looks remarkably contemporary, despite the fact it was carved by hunter-gatherers in a time preceeding agriculture, and therefore, civilization.

The same urge would express itself in the hard materials of architecture when cities began to become the new habitat of mankind, thousands of years later. The same active minds that carved the reindeer now carved the hard rock of the stones that made the palaces and temples of the first cities on the banks of the world's great rivers. Ornament would be a universal expression of the human spirit - the building designs of the Americas, completely separated from those of the Old World, would share similar characteristics with their counterparts in Europe, Asia and Africa. Ornament, in one form or another, would be universal in architecture throughout the ages, showing itself in stone, wood, and metal in a vast panoply of styles evolving over thousands of years all over the world and expressing unique regional and cultural characteristics. Often these ornaments served useful functions in the building itself, such as elaborately carved wood screens which shaded the building in Indian and Middle Eastern climates, or the carvings and stained glass windows depicting Bible stories to a largely illiterate Medieval European population.

To cite but one example, the sculptural forms of the swimming reindeer are echoed in one of the most distinctive architectural elements from the classical world - the caryatid. The caryatid is a statue depicting a woman that acts as a column holding a roof lintel. These were used widely in Greek and Roman architecture, most famously at the caryatid porch in the Acropolis. Classical Indian architecture is especially elaborate, with dense carvings over nearly every square foot of facade depicting humans, animals, and other abstract forms often inspired by nature. These buildings were usually built for religious or ceremonial reasons, and for this reason they contained extensive symbolism, since were designed embody specific religious and cultural values into their forms. Before the modern age, these sorts of buildings were the largest enterprises undertaken by humanity*, and thus were undertaken with a particular reverence.

Over time ornamentation styles became as varied as the cultures that spawned them, evolving over time, like the cultures themselves. Such buildings were as much a form of cultural expression as music, poetry, weaving, painting and literature. In the twentieth century, however, ornamentation of any sort, even minimal, was banished from architecture in place of cubical volumes of platonic shapes. Why did this happen?


The philosophy that would strip all ornamentation was most forcefully argued by Viennese architect Adolph Loos, who famously proclaimed that "ornament is a crime!" Loos put forward his argument in his 1908 book Ornament and Crime, which, although it had a profound influence on modern architecture, is rarely read today.

Loos' polemic makes its case on multiple fronts, from the practical to the philosophical. Loos central argument was that ornamentation was degenerate. He believed that societies naturally evolved towards higher states (a common idea at the time), and that the removal of ornament was a natural part of this process. He put forward the example of "primitive" New Guineans, who ornamented everything in their society, including their own bodies with tattoos, in contrast to the more highly evolved Europeans, who stripped such things away. He felt such ornamentation was an attempt to express a latent eroticism, and was therefore, in his view, degenerate. Ornamentation was particularly associated with the upper echelons of society who could afford such ostentation, and therefore the arguments against ornamentation were often linked to larger social criticisms.

Ornamentation was also inherently linked to the style of a particular time period. Europeans, being surrounded by such relics of the past, were impeded in their cultural progress, according to Loos. The ornamentation on buildings would doubtless soon go out of style, turning even new buildings into fossils in short order. By contrast, unadorned objects and buildings, stripped of the latest designer fads and fashions, would be able to withstand the test of time without looking old or dated, never falling out of style. Clearly, such fads were not compatible with the practical, rational nature of industrial society.

Furthermore, ornament served no practical purpose. Ornament was a tragic waste of manpower and materials. Workers were often compelled to add ornamentation without fair remuneration for their efforts. The removal of ornament liberated the workmen to do better things with their time, and freed up materials for more practical uses.

Loos was writing near the end of a long period of cultural upheaval in Europe, where mass production and the factory model had displaced the handicraft production methods that had been the traditional way of creating objects since Medieval times. This craft-oriented production method was inherently linked with ornamentation, and it was logical that a new austere aesthetic would be the logical compliment to mass-production, supplying the philosophical justification for what was already underway. What was happening to everyday objects was logically applied to the new aesthetic of buildings.

The other trend since the beginning of the Enlightenment was toward a society based on logic and reason, as opposed to religion and emotion. Ornamentation, as a pure expression of aesthetics with no practical purpose, was seen as contrary to the values of a society based on rationality. Buildings should express the hyper-rationality that was the basis of modern society, not the fickle and conflicting emotional world depicted by ornamental fads. The gargoyles of Gothic Cathedrals represented superstition and ignorance, and stripped of such ostentation, new buildings would represent reason and progress. The rational world of Europe demanded that the forms also be rational and Platonic, derived from engineering principles and the activities that occurred within them, as expressed succinctly in the modernist dictum, "form follows function."

In opposition to Loos was the English art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin, inspired by the European Romantic movement, arguing that architecture was actually an expression of human desires and emotions. Ruskin argued that buildings were not merely practical, nor should they be - they were an expression of an entire community's hopes, dreams, and cultural institutions. As such, they were also an expression of memory, and memory needed to be preserved to have a healthy culture. Even its crude and "savage" aspects were proof of "the liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure." As Ruskin put it:

"Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are also the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance."

Ruskin lost out. Loos' argument became a central feature of Modern architecture when it was picked up by the highly influential European artistic movement known as the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus movement critiqued bourgeois society, and found ready ammunition in Loos' attack on ornamentation. The movement was fascinated with the utilitarian buildings spawned by industrialism, - the factories with their high ceilings and large, columnless spaces for armies of workmen and machinery, iron bridges whose beauty came from the economy of structure of the iron material, water towers and train sheds, and towering smokestacks. Here was to be found the new aesthetic for a new age - the aesthetic of the machine. This was how buildings should be - the aesthetic should come from the materials themselves and the engineering knowledge that went into them, not from outdated ornamentation which went in and out of style. Such was the aesthetic of rationality! Ornamentation was a useless holdover from that past society of farmers and craftsmen who toiled in squalor. Mass-production could lead to a golden age for the industrial worker, and the removal of all ornamentation expressed that Utopian ideal. French architect Le Corbusier declared the house to be simply "a machine for living". Machines were not the enemy - they were the liberators!

Thus, a form of architecture that had no ornamentation would be beyond style - and yet that would become a style of itself - the International Style. Since it had no ornament - it could go anywhere. It belonged at once everywhere and nowhere. This was the beginning of Modernism.

In the end, Loos may have won out for purely practical reasons. Ornament was costly. A stone carver could only carve a custom piece painstakingly, one piece at a time, and needed to be paid wages for it based on the amount of time he took to do his work. The logic of the money-wage economy made such considerations cost-prohibitive. It took literally years for stonemasons to carve the elaborate portals at Chartres, for example, and in a wage-driven society who was going to pay for that? Assemblages of mass-produced parts were far more cost-effective.

Also, the sheer amount of buildings necessary for industrialism made such considerations unworkable. In agrarian societies with limited energy and materials, putting up a building was a relatively rare occurrence, Most buildings were simple and vernacular, built simply for immediate use - a cottage, a barn, a guild hall, etc. A castle or a Gothic cathedral often took decades to build, and in some cases over a century! By contrast, industrialism required massive amounts of buildings to go up quickly and cheaply. Mass-produced materials - rolled steel shapes, cast-iron forms, fired ceramics, glass panes, precut dimensional lumber, sheet materials and poured concrete were the new materials of choice. These were not hand-crafted like the wood beams of an old half-timbered house - these were cranked out in large quantities and assembled rapidly, then on to the next building. Buildings became standardized, and the factory system eventually displaced the craftsman system in construction as well - each worker did one part of a single specialized task, over and over, leaving the big picture to the architect in his faraway office. "Slow building" it was not.

And besides, the activities taking place within these buildings truly were novel. A factory building's function was not social - it was designed for producing goods, not being beautiful in and of itself. There really was no precedent for a factory or an office building in  history. How should such buildings look? It seemed like the spartan glass boxes of Mies Van Der Rohe made as much sense as an aesthetic basis for the number-crunching temples of capitalist business as any other form. Of what relevance were Gothic cathedrals or Greek temples for these buildings? Of what use ornamentation? Buildings became cheaper and less durable, becoming simply shells for the profit-making enterprises that took place within them. The social value of architecture was abandoned. Modernism had reached its apogee.

The Bauhaus movement was incorporated into the United States as the European designers fled war-torn Europe and came to North America, establishing architecture programs at America's most prestigious universities, and in consequence transforming American architecture from a practical art of building to one of abstract theory. Prominent dissidents of these ideas were the idiosyncratic Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, and the aforementioned Frank Lloyd Wright.


Modernism was embraced wholeheartedly in America - the most modern of countries. America's exponential industrial growth necessitated massive construction - upward of ninety percent of the buildings in North America were built after world War 2. Many older buildings from before the war were mercilessly torn down in the name of progress - often for nothing more than freeways and parking lots for cars.

After decades of unquestioning modernism in the name of progress, something happened. Modernism began to lose its luster. A watershed event was the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis - a project built on the principles of classical modernism - due to the sheer unlivability of the place. The public began to question the sparse, impersonal nature of these buildings, and contrast them with the older buildings that had survived the onslaught of anti-urbanism which had swept the country.

The general public simply liked the older buildings better than what architects were creating in the present. These older buildings adapted themselves remarkably to post-industrial society - old warehouse buildings were converted into art galleries, and as high-income patrons shopped for art, they noticed the high ceilings, open floor plans, and plentiful natural lighting were ideal for other uses - condominiums, offices, boutiques. Moreover, these spaces were inspiring, with their elaborate brick and terra-cotta facades, plaster walls, large double-hung windows, ornate wrought iron banisters and exposed heavy-timber framing. Older industrial urban neighborhoods quickly became the most desirable real estate in the city, and these places became the hip and trendy areas, from Soho in New York to the Pearl District in Portland. Areas which suffered from underinvestment and neglect now had the opposite problem - soaring rents and gentrification pushed out all but the rich from these areas. Ironically, many of these buildings were the very same ones that had inspired European Modernism - warehouses, factories, and office buildings.

The architectural profession, however, remained obsessed with novelty. Modernist buildings became sleek and machine-sculpted assemblages - kits of high-tech parts fitted together, where the aesthetic appeal was intended to come from the massing of abstract geometric forms defining the spaces therein. Forbidden from using ornament, the buildings themselves became the ornament. Architects took their design cues from the geometric forms of abstract painters and sculptors, as well as the gridded modularity of modern manufactured materials. "Honesty in materials" became the catch phrase for many movements including Brutalism, which took it's name from the French word for concrete, but in the public's eye came to embody the more conventional use of the term. For a brief period, a movement called post-modernism emerged, which idiosyncratically pasted historical forms onto modern buildings in an exaggerated and cartoonish manner, in a self-conscious attempt to "reference" historical precedents. It quickly faded. Eventually, two major trends emerged in American architecture - forms becoming ever more sculptural and bizarre - exemplified by Frank Gehry, Daniel Liebeskind and Thom Mayne, and buildings built with no aesthetic whatsoever, as exemplified by the millions of anonymous buildings littering American suburbia. These two trends - paper-thin utilitarian crud vomited across the landscape and expensive and leaky white elephants, were signs of an architecture that has lost its way**.

Yet the old areas of cities were more vibrant than ever. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century buildings, after a period of decline and demolition, were now almost universally beloved and preserved. These pre-modernist buildings did not derive "sculptural" forms from the shape of the building. Their layouts were often simple "alphabet"shapes - L's, O's and E's. They did, however, have ornamentation. The Carson Pirie Scott building in Chicago, by Louis Sullivan, with its elaborate bronze-plated cast-iron ornamental scrollworks decorating the corner entry on the corner of State and Madison, is a classic example. Or consider the exuberant art-deco of the top of the Chrysler Building in New York by William Van Allen - it is one of the most beloved icons and a distinct feature of the city's skyline, especially contrasted against the gridded boxes of postwar skyscrapers. Has any tall building been built in New York since the war that is as universally loved?

Contrast these with works by such modernist icons as Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn, which are reviled by the general public for their aesthetics, performance and usability. To cite but a few examples, the bare hammered concrete of the Yale Art and Architecture building by Paul Rudolph to most outside observers seems cold, harsh, and uninviting. The building was too small from the start, with claustrophobic quarters for painters on top, poor ventilation and bad lighting. Many of Rudolph's works are already being torn down or threatened with demolition. Users of Louis Kahn's buildings talk about the usability problems in the film My Architect, and seem less than enthused with the work. MIT sued Frank Gehry over the pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems caused by the swooping forms at his Stata Center after only a few years of use. The Denver Art Museum, with its jagged shard forms has suffered roof leaks, and its galleries are nearly unusable. Boston City Hall, an icon of modernism built in 1969, is reviled by many citizens, who believe it looks like a bunker or a prison. The mayor has proposed selling it and its adjacent plaza off to developers. In 2008 it was named the world's ugliest building in an online poll.

Clearly stripping all ornamentation, exposing bare materials, and turning the form of the building itself into sculpture have not had the hoped-for results - unworkable spaces, leaky roofs, temperature problems. Unadorned modernist buildings have ended up looking even more dated than their 19th century counterparts, and far less loved by the general public. Will our modern buildings they be as beloved in the next century? Will people be fighting to prevent them from being torn down? Will they provide usable spaces for new future uses? There is no way of knowing for sure, but I doubt it. Why, with all our technical brilliance and our seemingly limitless command of materials, have we not succeeded in making buildings as emotionally rewarding as those of a century earlier?


So to return to our original thesis - are Adolph Loos' arguments valid today? I hardly think so. Even stripped of its racist overtones, It is difficult to think of all ornamentation as degenerate, which would encompass literally all human societies prior to the industrial revolution. Loos made the classic mistake that many intellectuals made as Darwin's ideas spread - the idea that evolution was a directional process, with a fixed beginning and an end result. In fact, as any biologist will tell you, it nothing of the sort. Evolution simply provides different forms, and those that can exploit a particular niche tend to be preserved, otherwise they die out. In that sense it is ornamentation that is evolutionary, since some forms remain and others die out based on public tastes. Ruskin's peacock's tail is a case in point - it is an evolutionary adaptation whose only useful purpose is to secure mates. It appears that modernism may in fact be an evolutionary dead end, as the old buildings of industrial America are preserved even while newer buildings are falling apart or being torn down.

As for the arguments that buildings would reflect a distinct time period, isn't that the point? It is precisely the collection of historical styles that give a city its vitality. A city where every building were new would be sterile and uninviting. It is precisely because of the centuries of historical buildings that tourists flock to European cities, and why they are so admired and loved, even by architects. The history of styles is a living history, encoding memory into the city and expressing the vitality of a culture. Old buildings were hardly torn down when they fell out of fashion as Loos predicted. Victorian and Georgian homes may not be today's "style", but such homes are lovingly preserved and restored by their owners. Will the same be true of today's bloated plywood mansions?

I think the human mind inherently recognizes when an object has been shaped by human intelligence, even on a subcounscious level. Recognizing the intelligence embodied in the object, it responds to it in a positive way, creating a bond between the maker and the user, a bond that stretches across time and embodies a living memory of the past. We humans are creatures that seek stories and connection, and most of all, meaning. Ornamanet serves these functions. Something off an assembly line does not.

Furthermore, the human mind loves complexity, and recoils from simplicity. Clearly, ornament adds a level of complexity, a feeling of handiwork to even a mass-produced object. Different aspects of an object are discovered as one walks around it, alternately revealing and hiding itself from different angles and under different lighting conditions, creating visual, and hence emotional, delight in the observer of the object.

Loos may have been writing in antagonism to Art Nouveau, but the simple fact remains that people liked Art Nouveau. Hector Guimard's elaborate entrances to the Paris Metro are beloved tourist attractions to this day; one cannot imagine them being removed. They became a living part of the city's social fabric. Are their elaborate forms necessary? No. Are they dated by their style? Certainly, and that's part of the charm. Paris today has buildings from the Middle Ages to modern times - from the first Gothic Cathedral at St. Denis to the ultramodern Pomidou Center and modern works by Jean Nouvel and others, with everything in between. It is this variety which makes it one of the world's great cities.

As for the cost and labor issues, now that the computer can put ornamentation in our hands once again, making it cost effective, should we take another look? How will we deploy these amazing tools? Can we not deploy them in the service of an architecture that once again provides sheer delight among the general population, one that will be preserved and loved in the centuries hence? Computers can now produce objects as intricate as any craftsman, in a variety of materials, cheaply and in quantity. Even though it is the computer that is doing the forming, it is the designer's vision and creativity being embodied in the object. The computer, used properly, can open up limitless possibilities to creative architects, ones previously undreamed of.

Am I advocating a return to past forms, where we once again adorn buildings with classical columns and friezes? Absolutely not! We must create an ornament of our time, just as we must create an aesthetic for our time. We can not slavishly imitate the past. No one is interested in creating mere replicas of older buildings, rather we should ask what has made successful buildings in the past, and how can these things point the way to the future. What forms future designs will take is an open question. Maybe the complex mathematics of fractals and Voronoi diagrams will derive algorithmic designs based on the underlying geometric relationships in nature unearthed by modern science - who knows?

But going forward, it is clear that the elaborate sculptural shapes will no longer be effective from a cost or energy standpoint. We will need to look elsewhere for inspiration. perhaps it's time to embrace these tools and incorporate them to infuse beauty into a new aesthetic for a world of resource scarcity.
* with the possible exception of irrigation technology.
** an oversimplification, of course.

1 comment:

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