The Return of Ornament

Ornaments: those recurrent, iterative patterns, geometric, oral or abstract, surround us everywhere today, wherever we go. Of late this type of ornamentation of surfaces has become so popular that it seems to have embraced practically everything and anything ranging from cigarette lighters, ash-trays and mobile phones to wallpaper, furniture, apartment interiors, club-houses, cafés and shops.

The Return of Ornament

Within the context of 20th century architectural theory and practice today’s readoption of ornament may be seen as a resolute, bold gesture marking the transition to a new treatment of ornamental décor, as well as a transition within the development of contemporary architecture as a whole, as the resurrection of adornment marks a clean break with the almost century-old tradition of its conscious banishment. After decades of functionality to the point of maximum formal reduction, ornament is once again returning while at the same time avoiding con ict with the principles of modernism and without intruding into the territory of post-modernism, traditionalism, or neoclassicism. This process is therefore of special note.

In 1908 when Adolf Loos wrote his celebrated essay «Ornament and Crime» he denounced ornamental décor as the greatest evil and called for its expulsion from architecture on the grounds that «evolution of culture comes with the removal of ornamentation from the objects of everyday use». This caustic pamphlet is read today with a touch of irony. To best understand the text, however, one must realize that it was created in the context of excessive to the point of total emasculation — ornamental eclecticism that was industrially mass produced at the time, and later in the days of Jugendstil (Liberty style).

Indeed, as early as in the mid-19th century a group of Viennese stone masons, following the lead of Heinrich Hübsch who wrote in 1826 a book titled «In What Style Are We Supposed to Build Now?», would ask the owner while completing a house: «In what style shall we decorate it?»

Mediacenter of the Technical University. Cottbus, Germany. 2004. Herzog & de MeuronMediacenter of the Technical University. Cottbus, Germany. 2004. Herzog & de Meuron © Barbara Staubach/arturimages

Office building in Unter den Linden 34. Berlin. 2006. S. Tchoban, nps tchoban vossOffice building in Unter den Linden 34. Berlin. 2006. S. Tchoban, nps tchoban voss © C.Gahl

National Olympic Stadium in Peking. China. 2008. Herzog & de MeuronNational Olympic Stadium in Peking. China. 2008 © Herzog & de Meuron