Ornament and Crime: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

I wake up facing a ‘Bazinga’ poster on my wall every morning, before drifting towards the kitchen, which is stripped bare of any formal or spatial indulgences except a horizontal work surface. When I moved in, this house was a hollow shell. It took us nearly a month to transform it into a familiar space. In a few months, my collection of knick-knacks, figurines, Hello Kitty merchandise and the like, invaded the house. There is no ‘real’ utilisation or function of these things except they are just there. Their eclectic existence enhances the personal value of the space they are in. 

In other words, they mark familiar territory in our minds.

“Ornamentation is wasted manpower”, declared Viennese architect Adolf Loos. He went further, differentiating ‘ornament’ from ‘ornamentation’, the former meaning purposeful or functional adornment while the latter referring to superfluous decoration or add-ons, without which buildings would continue to stand unperturbed. In other words, stripping a structure of anything that did not directly or indirectly work towards binding its various parts together, was perfectly acceptable. In 1908, when he published ‘Ornament and Verbrechen’ (Ornament and Crime), Loos primarily appealed to capitalists, stating ornamentation as a wastage of capital. He went further, relating cultural progress to minimal ornamentation. In other words, he believed that society gave up superficial decoration and as a consequence, progressed culturally. Hence, for man to reach the zenith of progress, all ornamentation would have to be banned and craftsmen discouraged to practise their craft. Loos’ opinion fermented into his articles and building projects that were indeed realised, much to the shock and initial disbelief of people with a Classical idea of beauty in architecture.

If ornamentation were to be discarded, wouldn't everything turn generic in its bland existence? While not exactly favoring ornamentation as one sees it around these days, it would not be improper to question the relevance of self without ornamentation. Is it not ornamentation that allows personal idiosyncrasies and individuality to co-exist with societal norms? As a society, how accommodating are we to alternate mindsets? Under the garb of ornamentation, the main cause of concern is tolerance. For instance, when Loos designed the Café Museum, people who viewed Modernist ideals as obsolete and a short-lived reaction soon to die out, derided it as Café Nihilism. The plainness was too blunt for their taste and at the time, since they had not been exposed to a statement so monumental and oft-seen in their daily lives, they decided to press harder for a familiar neo-Classical style. While heavily decorated fluted columns and cherubs floating around ribbons and sashes of silken cloth register themselves as a rigid category in our minds, so do white rectilinear forms with strips of openings for picturesque views. Both these visual sets, belong to a pre-set category in our minds- the former as Classical architecture and the latter as Modern architecture. (Note that it is architecture we talk about here, and not Architecture)

Going back in time, why were cave paintings like those found at Lascaux, France, made? Apart from the many possible explanations, one that cannot be ruled out, alludes to the need for aesthetic stimulation of the visual senses. During every civilisation, there have been periods where the arts flourished and hence, archaeologists happened to gather material culture. Ornamentation existed long before our time, just not viewed as we do currently. Are we, as a species, hard-wired to objectively agree regarding aesthetics? Probably not. Similarly, can we question the integrity of a building by categorising it as wrong or right architecture?
The One and Only Royal Mirage, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The function of a building or a house is to nurture its inhabitants allowing adequate sunlight, ventilation and a habitat conducive to individual development. If it fulfills these requirements with or without ornamentation, does it matter? A dwelling; whether a cave or an igloo or a mud or concrete house, facilitates its inhabitants to grow, multiply their kind, sheltering them from any natural threats. Our earliest shelter, the cave, qualifies the Corbusian ‘machine for living’ ideal as it permitted all the activities of the early man. However, just as Loos and other Modernists identified and dictated a certain module for the ‘modern house’ which if followed, would lead to generic neighbourhoods and colonies where people would be forced to accept a certain formal language irrespective of their cultural differences or sensitivities.

Human behaviour and settlement patterns have varied over time and as physical and social conditions change, these will continue to morph further into newer aesthetic choices. Every built structure is a witness to a certain period of historical development and gives away a piece of information about its dwellers. Whether an individual chooses to formally recreate the Parthenon for a market place, a museum or a governmental office, is a personal decision. It does have implications in the public sphere but one has to remember that any new style or the revival of an older style has always created outrage amongst the general masses and theorists.

The role of a building in any setting also includes engaging the city in a formal and spatial discourse, creating enriching experiences for onlookers. Bypassing the debate about ornamentation is the human need to reach out for the familiar. Any change, whether revolutions or economic recessions, create a domino effect of fear, insecurity and a need for re-invention and renovation. Architectural styles were a reflection of the turbulent times of change during the past eras, not an end in themselves but a means to an end. As Robert Venturi had stated in his 1966 essay, “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.” To each, his own.

Yasra Daud Khoker
Yasra Daud Khoker has a degree in Interior Design from the American University of Sharjah. She is an art critic and artist who divides her time between Dubai and Jaipur. Yasra can be contacted at yasrakhoker@yahoo.com

Copyright © ArchitectWeekly.