Directions and Intellectual Bases of Ornament Criticism in Modern Architectural Literature

Fatemeh Ahani & Iraj Etessam

Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


Following the publication of Adolf Loos’s famous article “Ornament and Crime” in 1908, arguments against ornaments reached an unprecedented level which led to its elimination from the majority of architectural practices in western countries during the first half of the 20 century. The ornamental approach, despite being severely criticized by postmodernist critics in 1960’s, never completely ceased to exist. In an attempt to discover the reasons behind the long-lasting presence of such a practice, this paper looks into different directions of ornament criticism in modern architectural literature. Modern critics condemned ornamentation by ascribing several defects such as deception, decadence, disutility, wastefulness, recession and lack of spontaneity. As a result of such associations, designers repress in themselves what they consider as defective and internalize anti-ornament beliefs of modernism in a form of self-control. This leads to the marginalization of ornament in architectural discussions and practices even after the demise of the modernist movement in architecture.

 Keywords: Architectural Ornament, Criticism, Repression, Naming, Defect

1.  Introduction

Ornament criticism began as an old tradition in the very first architectural treatise Ten Books in Architecture (Vitruvius, 1960) and culminated in three periods of the history of western architecture. The first was during the second half of 18th century, when as a result of the rapidly growing rationalism in western societies (Farrel,2005) several designers and theorists including Laugier, Durand and De l’Orme’s criticized excessive ornamental practices in the dominant styles (i.e. Baroque and Rococo) in an unprecedented pejorative tone and recommended simplicity instead. This was clearly reflected in De l’Orme’s tirades against those who pile up ornament “without reason, proportion, or measure, and more often by mere chance” (cited in Blunt, 1980).

The second climax of criticism however, was formed In England, in the nineteenth century when the prevalence of Victorian decorative arts and mass production of highly-decorated but tasteless objects triggered a great debate which engaged artists, manufacturers, and consumers alike. During this period, “the Parliamentary Select Committee on Art and Manufactures’ expressed concern that British-manufactured goods were lacking in quality as compared to the output of France, Germany and the United States, and that, consequently, England risked losing the export race” (Oshinsky, 2000). These economic argument calling for better design also was accompanied by morally and aesthetically based statement against the excessive use of ornamentation put forward by critics, among which were the designer and educator Henry Cole (1808-1882), the artist Richard Redgrave (1804-1888), and the ornamentalist and theorist Owen Jones (1809-1874). They finally developed the formal guidelines for a modern yet morally conceived design vocabulary in order to make a reform in design. (Oshinsky,2000)

The last and most intense stream of ornament criticism however, emerged in the first half of 20th century when Loos in his famous article “Ornament and Crime” (1908) condemned the application of ornaments as a sign of moral and cultural degeneration of a modern man. This stream was distinct from previous ones as in 18th and 19th century arguments. Ornaments were still considered as an important part of architectural works whose proper quality and quantity of application was just in question. Vitrvius’s appeal for “truthfulness of representation” in ornament’ (Farrel, 2005), Alberti’s objection to the “blatant and vulgar display of wealth” (Farrel, 2005) and De l’Orme’s argument against irrelevant use of decoration—were all statements made by designers who used ornament in their works frequently, while, modernists in the 20th century questioned the credibility of architectural ornament fundamentally and pleaded for its complete elimination from architecture.

Taking into consideration the severity of modernists’ critiques and their deep influence on contemporary architectural practices, a large number of texts has been published on this issue (Trilling,2003; Gombrich,1979; Brolin,2000; wigley,2001). Among them Kent Bloomer’s “on the absence of ornament” is the only one in which a clear (but loose) classification of anti-ornament statements is suggested. In his book, Bloomer addressed those critiques which condemn ornaments as dishonest, expensive and recessive elements and as inessential components which are irrelevant to space and associated with institutions of power and wealth. Nevertheless, what necessitates further research in this area is that there still exist some other directions of ornament criticism which seems to be neglected in his text.

  1. Modernism and Repression of Ornament

Modernists as ornament opponents were aware that there must have been something wrong with ornament to make its rejection possible as people do not readily give up something that works well (Trilling, 2003). Therefore, they used “an important strategy on the part of groups engaged in struggles with others” (Featherstone, 1991), called ‘Naming’ (Engels-Schwarzpaul , 2001) and ascribed several defects to ornament that led to the internalization of their anti-ornament beliefs in people’s mind in the form of self-control. An examination of modernism proponents’ arguments against ornament shows that their claims can be loosely classified in six groups as follows…Full Text PDF

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