Sep 26, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

A New Humanism: Part 32

A New Humanism: Part 32

(page 1 of 4)

Before going on with the exploration of “aesthetic experience,” it’s important to talk about ornament and how it multiplies the potential for more people to share in more ways the rewards latent in a place we design. In their conventional use, the terms “elaboration,” “embellishment,” and “ornament” tend to imply “non-essential.”  But much of a built environment is ornament.  In a second persuasive book, The Nature of Ornament, architect Kent Bloomer describes how it has always been a distinctive category of the designing arts.

Explicit, easily legible, inviting attention, its presence and form – or absence – is one of a designer’s most effective forms of communication. For better or worse, it springs open more streams of memory and imagination. Like personal adornments – clothing, color, jewels or cosmetics intended to alter perceptions of the “essential” qualities of a body – ornament multiplies and dramatizes information. And looking back, ornament has always been one of the first expressions of human victory, wealth or superior fitness.  In fact, unchanging gold, the material most highly coveted worldwide for millennia and bid up in price as the most reliable asset, originally and ultimately, has had few practical uses beyond ornament.

The line between ornament and “essential,” though, is naturally a blurred one. Our audiences see the total place. And the human impulse to elaborate and embellish – or just “to play” to open up more sensations -- can be found everywhere. In built environments it’s inescapable – from the patterns stamped or molded onto mass-produced building materials to garden sculpture to faux-historic street scenes. It’s an integral and compelling part of architect Louis’ Sullivan’s revolutionary steel frame and elevator buildings of early modern Chicago or in the vast factories designed by Detroit’s Albert Kahn, or even in the buildings of Viennese architect Adolf Loos, who famously declared ornament a “crime.”  Its reputation for immorality is, of course, based on its ability – and often intent – to deceive.  But as a practical matter it is always there. In each designer a distinctive configuration of trained or habitually-traveled neural networks – a personal, “signature” style as different as Gaudi’s and Mies’ – inevitably guides every subtle movement of an eye and hand – or product selection – and as a result is in the contours of every detail.

Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batilo in Barcelona – ornament as a layer of architectural language over a “practical” core.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

Ornament can tell complex stories about the form and function of a place – as it does with people – and/or link it to ideas. In the case of structure, domes and arches, great heights and long spans are the “body language” that dramatizes the big victories in the contests with gravity.  When they’re unadorned many of us find “beauty” in our visceral response to their sculpture or achievement. But more often it is through symbolic structural details that bring the place down into human scale – the composition of columns, capitals, exaggerated ribs and the articulated joints that pervade architecture – that we join in the designers’ perception of elegant resolutions of the natural forces. We feel it in the equipoise, the elaborated balanced rhythms of thrust and repose expressed in flying buttresses, or Mies’s “superfluous” details in steel and bronze or Greene and Greene’s complex, elegantly redundant wood joinery. In Louis Sullivan’s word, ornament “awakens” the basic geometry.

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