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Beauty In Architecture Through Ornamentation

Semple House Condominiums (Photograph: John Veltri)

All building is not architecture. For a building to become architecture, it must be thematically essentialized through a process of ornamentation. The product of this process is "ornament" - "Something employed to adom, beautify, or embellish, or that naturally does this; a decoration, embellishment."

"The primary difference between art and architecture is that architecture doesn't only show how the world can and ought to be; it actually makes a part of the world the way it should be and is."

Walking through the streets of Manhattan - or any major urban area of America - one finds a preponderance of modern highrises devoid of ornament. Even smaller cities and residential neighborhoods are populated now with buildings and houses devoid of character, missing any sense of design. It is ornamentation that these buildings are lacking. In comparing these newer buildings with those of the last century and before, we have to ask: "What happened?"

In the late nineteenth century, academic classical design reached its pinnacle in America at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and was termed "the American Renaissance." These buildings embodied a style encoded in the first century B.C. by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c. 90-20 B.C.). In Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture, he documented and developed rules for the orders of Greek architecture - Here he comments on the evolution of ornament in "The Ornaments of the Orders," Book IV, Chapter 11:

2. So it was that some ancient carpenters ... after laying the tie-beams so that they projected from the inside to the outside of the walls, closed up the space between the beams, and above them ornamented the coronae and gables with carpentry work of beauty greater than usual; then they [the Greeks] cut off the projecting ends of the beams, bringing them in line and flush with the face of the walls; next, as this had an ugly look to them, they fastened boards, shaped as triglyphs are now made on the ends of the beams, where they had been cut off in front, and painted them with blue wax so that the cutting off of the ends of the beams, being concealed, would not offend the eye. Hence it was in imitation of the arrangement of the tie-beams that men began to employ, in Doric buildings, the device of triglyphs and the metopes between the beams.

3. Later, others ... allowed the projecting principal rafters to run out till they were flush with the triglyphs, and the triglyphs from the arrangement of the tie-beams, the system or mutules under the coronae was devised from the projections of the principal rafters. Hence generally, in buildings of stone and marble, the mutules are carved with a downward slant, in imitation of the principal rafters.

5. Just as mutules represent the projection of the principal rafters, so dentils in the Ionic are an imitation of the projections of the common rafters. And so in Greek works nobody ever put dentils under mutules, as it is impossible that common rafters should be underneath principal rafters. Therefore, if that which in the original must be placed above the principal rafters, is put in the copy below them, the result will be a work constructed on false principles. Neither did the ancients approve of or employ mutules or dentils in pediments, but only plain coronae, for the reason that neither principal nor common rafters tail into the fronts of pediments, nor can they overhang them, but they are laid with a slope towards the eaves. Hence the ancients held that what could not happen in the original would have no valid reason for existence in the copy.

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The 3 Classical Orders - PGA

For Vitruvius and all those who followed his documentation of the classical style, ornament and design itself revolved around imitation. Strict rules were set up regardless of the context of a given site, the technology available at a given time, or the functional requirements for a given client. These rules effectively stopped innovation because preconceptions (having solutions before even seeing the problem to be solved) prevented harmonious ornamentation of all the parts.

Like Vitruvius, Leon Battista Alberti (A.D. 1404-1472), an architect whose On The Art of Building in Ten Books had a great influence on all the arts in the Renaissance, considered ornament as something additional or applied: "...ornament may be defined as a form of auxiliary light and complement to beauty. From this it follows, I believe, that beauty is some inherent property, to be suffused all through the body of that which may be called beautiful; whereas ornament, rather than being inherent, has the character of something attached or additional." But he is noteworthy because of his definition of beauty, which he considered objective: "When you make judgements on beauty, you do not follow mere fancy, but the workings of a reasoned faculty that is inborn in the mind."

For Alberti, beauty was to be found not only in nature - it was the main purpose for building:

"Most noble is beauty, therefore, and it must be sought most eagerly by anyone who does not wish what he owns to seem distasteful. Nature herself, as is everywhere plain to see, does not desist from basking in a daily orgy of beauty-let the hues of her flowers serve as my one example."

"Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse. It is a great and holy matter; all our resources of skill and ingenuity will be taxed in achieving it; and rarely is it granted, even to nature herself, to produce anything that is entirely complete and perfect in every respect."

"Beauty is a form of sympathy and consonance of the parts within a body, according to definite number, outline, and position, as dictated by concinnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule in nature. This is the main object of the art of building, and the source of her dignity, charm, authority, and worth."

But questions arise in reading Alberti: since ornamentation as a process is carried out on the entire work, and ornament as a product of the process is part of the whole, how could he have considered ornament separate from the beauty of the whole? If beauty is self-contained in that nothing can be added or taken away without detriment, how can ornament that is "attached or additional" be beautiful?

Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), was one of the first to understand that the means -the ornamentation of a building - is crucial to achieve the end result of beauty. He set out to create an architecture dependent on a project's context, with integral ornament. He searched for "the rule so broad as to adrnit of no exception," emphasizing principles of design as opposed to preconceived rules. In accordance with his famous slogan, "Form follows function," Sullivan strove to integrate his unique naturalistic ornament with the fabric of the building. Both Sullivan and his young apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright rebelled against the increasingly popular non-integration of classicism.

Another reaction against Classicist Academic design was launched by the young Viennese architect Adolf Loos. In an article entitled "Ornament is crime," Loos declared: "... the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects." He demonstrated his thesis with his 1910 Steiner House, a building entirely devoid of ornamentation.

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Adolf Loos' Steiner House, Vienna, 1910. - MA

In 1923 Walter Gropius, one of the Bauhaus' founding fathers, stated: "Architecture in the last few generations has become weakly sentimental, aesthetic and decorative ... this kind of architecture we disown." But the culmination of his and others' ideas only led to a modern version of the rule-encoded approach of classicism: The International Style. With "the avoidance of applied decoration" as one of the rules, landmarks such as Flood & Fouilhoux's New York McGrawHill Building of 1931 were created. Add to that Mies van der Rohe's design principle of "less is more," embodied by his Seagram building in New York, and the evolution of non-ornamentation in modern building had been set.

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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building,
New York, 1957. Photo:

Although Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) also reacted against "applied" ornament as used in classicist academic design, he opposed this non-ornamentation trend with a further evolution in Sullivan's concept of "integrated" ornament:

"... But here now ornament is in its place. Ornament meaning not only surface qualified by human imagination but imagination giving natural pattern to structure. Perhaps this phrase says it all without further explanation. This resource - integral ornarnent - is new in the architecture of the world, at least insofar not only as imagination qualifying a surface - a valuable resource - but as a greater means than that; imagination giving natural pattern to structure itself. Here we have new significance indeed! Long ago this significance was lost to the scholarly architect. A man of taste. He, too soon, became content with symbols."

"Evidently then, this expression of structure, as a pattern true to the nature of the materials out of which it was made, may be taken much further along than physical need alone would dictate."

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Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Falling Water' house for Edgar Kaufmann Sr., Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1936. Photo: FCG

"... So, in the same uncommon sense integral ornament is the developed sense of the building as a whole, or the manifest abstract pattern of structure itself. Interpreted. Integral ornament is simply structure pattern made visibly articulate and seen in the building as it is seen articulate in the structure of the trees or a lily of the fields. It is the expression of inner rhythm of form."

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Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Hollyhock' house for Aline Barnsdall, Hollywood, 1921. Photo: FCG

(quotes from The Natural House)

Thus we understand ornamentation as the process of harmonizing the various elements inherent in the architectural work. The standard used for judging this harmony is the theme of the building, and the product of the process is a non-contradictory, unified whole.

All art can perform a vital function by creating in a directly perceivable form the manifestation of ideas in the world. The primary difference between art and architecture is that architecture doesn't only show how the world can and ought to be; it actually makes a part of the world the way it should be and is. In walking through architecture, then, as opposed to mere buildings, we can experience a world that reflects the deepest thoughts and emotions of the designing architect. When architecture is at its highest level of harmony, beauty is attained. As an example, consider the very distinctive top of William Van Allen's Chrysler building, which could have been a very simple box if purely functional concerns had been driving the design. Here the thematic goal, which was achieved brilliantly, was not only to make the building soar in a beautiful transition from the base of the building to the sky but also to celebrate the cause of the building. The curving forms and stylized shimmering stainless steel ornament within the top, reminiscent of hubcaps, hint at the greatness of the automobile while glorifying the climax of this soaring tower.

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William Van Alen's Chrysler building, New York, 1930. Photos: MW

The Temple of Triumph presents an example of ornamentation on a smaller scale. The purely functional requirements of the temple alone would generate a simple box through which visitors would move. But because the purpose of the temple is not simply to give shelter but to create a space where one experiences the freedom of action and the potential triumph of achieving values in the face of danger and risk, the driving force behind the design of the temple is almost purely thematic. The temple is stylized and integrated to such an extent that to strip the ornament off it would be to remove it entirely from the cliff.

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The Temple of Laughter project, by Frederick Clifford Gibson,
San Francisco, 1995. Rendering by

In agreeing with Alberti that we should value beauty in our lives and in our buildings, we see that ornamentation in architecture must strive to reach the highest levels of beauty possible. We also see that those who would abolish ornament as a superficial gesture were partly right, because the problem with applied ornamentation is not the nature of ornament itself but its non-necessity. In nature, as in our buildings, the highest levels of beauty are attained where all elements act together in harmony, where parts are integrated into a unified whole.

To reach this level of virtue we cannot abandon ornamentation, but instead must recognize its true function as a vital and necessary means for reaching ever-higher levels of beauty in architecture. We must move forward in architecture by learning from the past, but we must be careful not to apply preconceived solutions to what can be very complex problems. To attain beauty that inspires, a building must be designed specifically for its own context, not that of another place, another time, or another culture. It must be as individual as its own function and place, and its stylization must be as individual as the one who designs it.

Frederick C. Gibson

San Francisco - December 17, 1997

Reprinted with permission from the Volume Four Number Three issue of ART Ideas Magazine:

Copyright © 1997 Published by ART. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means - graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, electronic/computerized scanning, recording, taping or infomation storage and retrieval systems - without written permission from the publisher.


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MW Michael Wilkinson
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