A New Humanism: Part 32

Ornament and the rewards of the designed environment

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.

More from Metropolis

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.


Entrance to Greene and Greene’s Gamble House in Pasadena – structure expressed in wood and even in the trees it came from.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

Ornament is used, too, to animate messages of security and refuge – safe, reliable, comfortable, state-of-the-art shelter from threats – ranging from the fountain spectacles celebrating a settlement’s ample water supply, to symbolic battlements, to the gargoyles’ management of Parisian rainwater at Notre Dame.  And we enlarge our ownership of a place when skylines are ornamented with our personalized rising pinnacles; foundations are firmly anchored to the earth with stone walls, and above all, when landscapes and architecture are merged to ornament each other.

In a similar way, in a community we use ornamental details, profiles, color, and conventional stylistic allusions to harmonize a neighborhood or street scene and, in effect, expand our personal space by our shared conformity, civility, and good manners.  We reinforce expressions of our alliance’s superior achievement or fitness in battle using symbolic weapons as trophies or, at an urban scale, battle statues, generals on horseback or a triumphal arch.  At another extreme is the spare or brutal ornament in monuments that reinforce feelings of desolation, alienation, confinement, and grief at the world’s killing fields. These messages in ornament are, of course, like “beauty,” in-the-eye-of-the-beholder.  They can put any spin on stories. They’re exploited in “brand” identities. But one person’s fascinating complexity may be another’s confusing complication. And when they’re seen as over-the-top excess, or symbols sending deceptive messages – or when they’re not “to our taste” – then the negative moral judgments about the designers and their patrons tend to fragment any coherent experience. 

In any case, because ornament, minimal or complex, can be freed from the external world’s disciplines of conventional “function” – from physical, economic, and ecological performance – it can broaden or reinforce the language of a place.  Its potential unfettered reach and density of information parallel literature with its wide ranges of allusions, stories and symbols, or music with its melody lines, timbre, and rhythms. As a result, when it communicates at its best, ornament quickens the aesthetic experience.


I’ve been describing aesthetic pleasure found in built environments as practical, narrative, intellectual, spiritual, and visceral dimensions of experience. They go on to reach increasing levels of intensity when they engage – and are amplified by – three of the fundamental structures in our evolved human nature. I call the first “release,” the precursor to feeling a sense of transcendence. The second is the primal impulse for “learning” that has kept us alive, and the third, the inborn bonds of “kinship.”

First, we have within us a propensity and a capability – a survival skill woven through our mind and body – for an open-ended release from the preoccupations, and a necessarily constricted momentum of daily life. In a sense, the mind can shut down some functions, and feel that we’re leaving behind our “old” self and entering, with a cleared mind, into a new reality. It’s a change of mind-and-body state. Calm and alert, we feel we’re transcending for a time the limits of who we are and what we can do. The detached perception is a commonplace in stories of drug-induced releases or escapes, but individual descriptions of the experience and its potential intensity are found across a much broader spectrum of human searches.

Some describe a “release” as their route to meditation, when the calm and clarity of a freed, unrestrained attention can open up new insights, inspirations and the sense of being transported, arriving at both higher and deeper levels of consciousness and understanding. 

A parallel kind of spiritual transport is frequently and eloquently described in life-changing religious experiences, of course, or epiphanies out in the natural world. For others immersed in the arts, it may be, like novelist Vladimir Nabukov’s experience: “an aesthetic bliss, a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art” and his other deeply-felt values “are the norm.”


Others tell about experiencing a new reality when facing imminent danger that requires instant, smart decisions or action, or when mastering a challenge in sports performance or exercising a hard-earned skill and knowledge.  They talk about the transition in different ways, like feeling in the zone or in an out-of-body experience, with heightened awareness, warped time and astonishingly clear perception – moments of focused concentration when – and this is the point here – they feel themselves exceeding themselves

In a similar way, in the performing arts – through the languages of light, music, speech, faces, and bodies – artists and actors can bring their own deepest emotions to the surface and evoke a compelling, mirrored experience in an audience, transporting people out of their accustomed world of experience into another.  And the artists themselves often describe feelings of approaching perfection in themselves in a performance.

In practice this human capability to experience the pleasure of transcending personal limits or a constrained environment – and rise into an expanded sense of existence, mastery, and insight, has naturally been recognized and deliberately induced over millennia. While each of us has a different measure of education and in-born sensitivity, we hear over and over stories of feeling this “natural high” when encountering the beauty, artistry, excellence, and greatness we call aesthetic experience. And now, as neuroscientists uncover what’s happening in a “released” brain and body, we can expect to expand our own design techniques as well.


Pleasure in all of the arts – and sciences – grows out of the innate pleasure of  “learning” – of insight and understanding. We gain that knowledge through our direct experience, of course, but just as important, by what we learn from others – by watching, listening, sharing and imitating them. That learning starts with parents or a mentor, people who seem to have accumulated the wisdom of the world we’re born into. And it continues through our lives as we discover – and adopt into our own identity – the languages, beliefs, and emotions of others, and their skill, mastery and status that we have aspired to. Again, it’s one of those evolved capabilities/predilections that underlies the sapiens in homo sapiens.

And in the same way it’s that innate primal pleasure that stirs feelings called aesthetic experience. When the language of a built environment as brought to life by an excellence of execution – when each of us, at our own level of training, recognizes that an artist or design team has mastered challenges, uncovered hidden potentials, conveyed insights and stirred emotions, and done it with exceptional clarity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, wit, refinement or painstaking virtuosity – the human skills that have been rewarded with survival, winning, and prosperity – then we feel the excitement of being released into their levels in the hierarchies of talent, knowledge and understanding. In a sense we identify – we learn – for the moment with the extraordinary mastery of the human beings who created the place.


We feel that we’re sharing in their competitive skills, their world-view, and a fitness surpassing our own, participating in a freer and wider life. For a moment we’re experiencing as our own, the refined perceptions of the builders of the Parthenon, or the deep, inspired devotion of a medieval cathedral’s craftsmen, the exquisite sensitivity of a Japanese artist in the act of designing a garden, or the generous talents, spirit, and conceptual clarity of Michelangelo – people performing at the peak of human power.  And, today we continue to find that same excitement in the work of the modern era and still practicing generations.

A “kinship” response is driven by the most powerful innate predilection built into human nature, one that arouses strong emotions all across our lives – the unthinking priority we give to survival of our genes, to the life of family. It’s the force that has been transferred to the intense comradeship built up in team competitions and life-and-death battlefields – or at another level, longings for kinship with a god. It has changed history on a global scale when thousands have reacted to the artistry of writers or orators’ whose rhetoric – whose mastery of languages – has transformed a mix of divided individuals into crusaders – or a mob – with a unified purpose. The important point is that their listeners come to believe and identify their interests with what the speaker, the artist, the leaders – the “heroes” – believe, then feel what they feel, and mirror it within themselves.

We may or may not identify with – or even be interested in – an artist-hero as a personality, but we do recognize human beings, not unlike ourselves, in their moments of great insight and achievement. Then each of us in our own way seems able to internalize in our own learning, for the moment, a resonance – a kinship – with their skill and mastery and feel we are encountering both their artistry and – most memorably – what is latent in ourselves.

In this connection, the feeling of opening up, sharing our identity, in a sense losing oneself, seems likely to be one reason we are so suspicious of fakery and dismissive of copies and why we value so highly authenticity and the artistry of the designer’s – the hero’s – own hand. We expect the trace of a physical connection across time, a sense of its human origin. “My” experience is “about me,” my taste and my stature – it stirs proprietary feelings, and I want to be reassured by the authority and sincerity– the commitment– behind the language and the story that are manipulating my mind and body. And the use of the designer’s celebrity in marketing, of course, captures and magnifies this value.

In the perspective of a new humanism, then, at the core of aesthetic experience in a built environment is a pattern of reward built into our evolved nature – into primal drives for insight, bonding and transcendence. It’s a release of an innate ability to reach outside ourselves and participate in a heritage and performance – feeling for a moment – that we’re sharing in the most effective skill, wisdom or saintliness that human creativity has, or ever had to offer.


The great places   

Finally, when architecture, a landscape or an urban place has the potential to elicit continually renewed, refreshed aesthetic experience over generations or across religions and cultures – especially from the people best able to appreciate them most fully – they tend to be singled out as “great.”  As individuals and as communities we honor them with protection and preservation, and we allocate scarce resources of time and money or accept discomfort and hazards just to be there

The spectrum of the places is as broad as the spectrum of feelings of enlightenment, chill, fulfillment or transcendence that enter into aesthetic experience.  We may say “great” about a place as modest and intimate as a woodland chapel, or as expansive and bold as the socially vital streets of “great” cities where a mix of allied populations have distilled the spoils of their competitive success on military, commercial or artistic battlefields.  They’re the captivating and awe-inspiring “monuments” and villages and landscapes that have inspired religious and secular pilgrimages and the traditional Grand Tours of Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas.  In other words they tend to be places with a distinctive presence that we want to bond to ourselves – and our families – for the moment or for generations.

A level of magnetic power seems to come, too, from the broad scope of potential responses – the sequential awakening of multiple, interacting sensory systems that probe deep into different regions of a brain – and then a cumulative interweaving of its reward channels and a thrilling body state.  It’s a place where all of those interconnections create a “what-it’s-like-to-be-there” that refreshes the senses, emotions, intellect and our personal stories, with lucid perceptions of human values and purposes being realized in practice.  “Great” is what we tend to call the places where we experience – whatever our level of learning or sensitivity – the pleasure of human aspirations realized and ideals fulfilled.

Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in an Ozark Woodland

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

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In the following two posts, called “Interim Conclusions,” I outline briefly the New Humanism ideas and then how we can apply them “to do what we set out to do” by taking the next step—into education.



Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Albrecht Pichlerwho drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.

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