The Arab World Institute by Jean Nouvel
The Arab World Institute by Jean Nouvel

Opinion: Ornamentation – the continuous crime

About the Author
No'man Bayaty
No'man Bayaty is a writer and lecturer at Tishk International University in Erbil, Iraq. He holds a master's in urban design from the University of Mosul.

Academic No’man Bayaty briefly explores the significance of ornamentation throughout architectural history and makes a claim for its continuation in the years to come.

Traditional architecture has certain characteristics, and the most important one is likely the use of ornamentation as a tool for beautification. This contrasts with modern architecture, which refrained from unnecessary decoration and excluded it from its system of aesthetics. However, this might not continue for much longer, since ornamentation in architectural application is becoming popular once again, which we will explore in this article.

If we look at the prehistoric period and the development of cave dwelling – man’s first ‘home’ – we would find examples of early humans decorating cave walls with primitive drawings, which documented events, stories and emotions. These artworks were also a means of expression, making them historical and artistic records. We would also find that these drawings were a means of beautification for the cave house: although the cave wasn’t built by man, the drawings were a reflection of him on the walls.

With the development of civilisation, mature styles gradually emerged, as did different applications of ornamentation. Ancient Egyptian architecture used drawings and hieroglyphic text to cover the walls of temples, not only as a decorating strategy, but also as a communication system, declaring religious themes and stories. Column capitals were also decorated, influenced by the form of plants, such as the lotus, and statues marked important paths and buildings.

The same applies for classical architecture; columns like the Corinthian and Ionic had their capitals decorated from vegetal sources, and interior walls were mostly covered in drawings, such as frescos and mosaics. Even though classic temples are completely white today, references tell us that they were once polychromatic.

Corinthian columns at the Temple of Olympian Zeus

Medieval architecture was even more ornamented, as well as sculpted. It is nearly impossible to find a clean surface in Gothic cathedrals or Islamic palaces, especially one without a statue of a figure, or a vegetal or geometric ornamentation. And the Muslim architect added another element to the language of ornamentation: calligraphy. The Renaissance period also covered clean surfaces with paintings and frescos; even ceilings were not safe from artistic brush strokes, and the Sistine Chapel is an example.

Inside the Sistine Chapel

Ornamentation, for centuries, continued to define the standards of beauty, until the 20th century, when, after several decades of fickle movements within architectural theory, an essay published by Adolf Loos compared ornamentation with crime. Loos claimed that the primitive man used ornamentation as a terrorising technique to scare his enemies, and since ornamentation was the beautifying tool of primitive people, and we are a developed civilisation, art should leave the realm of ornamentation and become more developed, thus more abstract.

Modernism abandoned decoration and ornamentation, as ornamentation did not have a clear function to the artists and architects of the time, and such applications were associated with nothing but extra effort and money. Modern architecture was very logical with its criteria, and a concept with no obvious utility would not be included. Modernism thus produced buildings that were pure with clean surfaces, and these were visible in the architecture produced in the first half of the 20th century by architects like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe.

Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Modernism changed the standards of architectural beauty, which dominated architecture for millennia. In a short span of time, it had established new ‘crimeless’ foundations. It was widely agreed upon that a beautiful building is a clean and abstract one, and societies accepted the white smooth surfaces as new, evolved and lively, as opposed to the ornamented surfaces, which were viewed as old and dead.

I would argue that modernism did not completely refrain from ornamentation. The need for decorating an element seems to be deeply rooted. Mies, in his Seagram building, added steel frames in the elevation even though they were not carrying any structural weight, while Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel has its openings in a very irregular, brutal and decorative manner. Details and joints were emphasised and taken care of in many cases, and forms were manipulated with decorative approaches, which challenges modernism’s stance on ornamentation and brings it under question.

Ronchamp chapel by Le Corbusier

Despite the logical premises of modernism, its foundations were not solid, and even though postmodernism did not directly call for a return of ornamentation, decoration found its way back to architecture, and this time not as a statement for declaring skills, but with a stronger theoretical foundation.

Nikos Salingaros in his Unified Architectural Theory argues that ornamentation is not just a replaceable addition; the Islamic muqarnas had the function of breaking large surfaces into human-scale elements, with which eyes can communicate, and the Gothic sculptures told biblical stories and educated people, connecting them with their history. Ornamentation, by adding details to a surface, increases the engagement time between the viewer’s eyes and the building’s surface, and more engagement time helps the viewer communicate better with the surface and eventually relate to it more. Visually rich surfaces not only amuse the viewer and keep boredom at bay; they also have a psychological effect and can result in better moods and happiness.

Salingaros cites several studies to strengthen his claim. He mentions that humans evolved in natural environments (mountains, valleys and jungles), and natural environments are rich with visual information, like surfaces and colours, organic and geometric. Natural environments did not produce the clean white surface – the industry did, which places it in opposition with humans’ natural habitat. A study conducted on animals found that animal babies that were raised in minimalistic environments had lower brain capacity than those raised in natural environments. The same applies for children raised in high-rise buildings, separated from gardens and other natural features, which can lead to higher rates of psychological disorders like depression. Salingaros connects ornamentation with intelligence.

Moreover, ornamented surfaces have an actual function nowadays. Walls with decorative translucent patterns are used as a semi-isolation tool to separate two spaces. Some buildings are covered in patterned skins to let in specific air flow, while others have kinetic patterned facades to fluctuate the amount of lighting that penetrates a building, providing various settings (Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute in Paris is an example). Other patterns have cultural aspects and declare an ideology, like Eberswalde Technical School Library in Germany by Herzog and De Meuron.

Arab World Institute by Jean Nouvel

With the emergence of parametric techniques, it became possible to design and execute structures with very complex geometry. The use of decorative patterns became part of the structural challenge declared in these buildings. Buildings are covered in tiny detailed patterns, and ornamented interlocking pieces of metal and glass. Others reveal their structure, and ornamentation becomes an honest representation of the tectonic logic of the structure, such as Norman Foster’s Gherkin in London. These patterns increase the engagement time, and connect the viewer to the building, establishing a bond between the two, which retains a positive image in public memory.

Ornamentation is a ritual performed for thousands of years, and even though modernism fought it, it came back even more powerful. The ‘crime’ of putting the extra effort into a clean surface or a structural joint seems to continue for now and probably will for the near future too.