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June 20, 2008

Politically Incorrect Ornamentation?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The message "function good, ornament bad" is the best distillation I can come up with from my experience in architecture classes I took in the late 1950s.

Time has passed, obviously, and Postmodernism marked the entry of the nose of the ornamentation camel into the tent of pure, Modernist architecture. Needless to say, architects trained circa when I was in school were unhappy with that development and controversy has continued till this day.

I was glancing at the Harvard Design Magazine last week at the local Barned & Noble and stumbled on this article by Robert Levit titled "Contemporary Ornament: The Return of the Symbolic Repressed" that deals with this book: "The Function of Ornament" by Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo.

I later located a copy of the book and skimmed it, but didn't buy it because, since I retired, my book-buying budget has taken a serious hit. I mention this because it means that I can't give an evaluation of Levin's take on the book. But that doesn't really matter. Whether the thoughts are from Levin or Moussavi or Kubo, a line of reasoning interested me.

Here are some carefully cherry-picked quotes from Levin:

If one may take The Function of Ornament as an indicator of an important vein of sentiment in the architectural community, it names ornament, welcomes it back, as it were, but only on condition: ornament must function. Ornament may be back, but only by putting behind what gave it its past notoriety: its position outside of instrumental need, which is to say, its openly symbolic nature. ...

As Moussavi and Kubo make evident in their title, they will resurrect ornament on a functional foundation. The control of light and the assembly of walls, structural skeletons, light-diffusing walls and ceilings, are instrumental bases for exercises in pattern-making. Now rooted in function, questions of a purely symbolic or formal motivation can be put aside. With this move, a foundational polarity in Modernist architecture seems to dissolve—its distinction between substantive categories of material, structure, and space on the one hand, and ornament on the other.

Moussavi expresses concern about the communicative goals of Postmodernist architecture with its applied ornament. Citing the pluralist nature of contemporary society, she doubts that a coherent system of signs capable of communicating with architecture’s varied publics can be made. ...

Ornament does not pose a problem for our moment because it is superficial, added to the surface of buildings (as if after more important matters). It is a problem because, more explicitly than questions of type, structure, building arrangement, room distribution, and volume (all more readily seen as producing our sheltering environments), ornament remains more stubbornly a symbolic substance. ...

So what is wrong with symbolic form? In Moussavi’s view, it cannot speak to today’s plural publics for whom the symbolic can only be opaque. ...

Symbolic form requires levels of cultural familiarity (an erudition of sorts). Its limited legibility makes it undemocratic. (This is implicit in Moussavi’s argument.) ...

Symbolic forms persist as anachronisms. Their socially recognized significance and the world that gave rise to them have passed into history. The forms persist through empty habits or dry academicism. ...

A corollary: Symbolic forms are foisted upon publics without their consent or recognition. Such has been the case under authoritarian governments, most egregiously those of fascists, although it is possible to feel that all kinds of institutional and particularly state symbolism occur without consent and therefore present themselves as alienating forms with which social subjects fail to identify or do so only accompanied by a sense of coercion.

I don't much care whether or not ornament can be treated in terms of functionalism. That seems to be a bunch of academic twisting and turning over the "function good, ornament bad" directive mentioned at the start of this post.

What does interest me are the bits about the symbolism in ornamentation and how such symbolism can be evil if it is "fascist" (but not communist or socialist?), can be non-productive if it is not understood by the masses, and can not be in keeping with a diverse audience of viewers.

Now I'll push this a notch beyond Levin. Since "diversity" is one of the great god-objects of political correctness, and if architectural ornamentation is either not understood by some diverse populations or, worse, sends a wrong (imperialist, sexist, racist, homophobic, you-name-it) message, then ornamentation is to be avoided. Or perhaps, if all symbolism can be squeezed out of it, grudgingly tolerated.

The presumptive outcome is a twofer: functional architecture prevails as do the aims of political correctness. Architects may now sleep easier.



posted by Donald at June 20, 2008


It strikes me that opposition to ornament is what's homophobic, misogynist, etc. Strict functionalism is a male honky attitude.

Posted by: John Emerson on June 20, 2008 10:59 PM

It occurred to me that this might interest youse guys.

Posted by: dearieme on June 21, 2008 9:12 AM

Symbolic forms are foisted upon publics without their consent or recognition.

No conceivable form of design, including Bauhaus and beyond, can have the "consent or recognition" of the entire public. No doubt there were people in 19th century London who didn't know why grand public buildings and modest churches resembled Greek temples; probably some had no idea that was their bloodline. But every educated person understood that part of these buildings' function -- yes, function -- was to strike a chord of cultural memory, to inject a note of timelessness into daily life, even when that life consisted of buying and selling.

Domestic architecture (the buildings people live in), a better metric of the public's "consent or recognition," have usually been far more traditionalist than the dreams of Ayn Randian visionary architects. See the half-timbered Elizabethan revival cottages of Victorian suburbs and the colonial-style houses of New England, and even today almost every new subdivision has echoes of the local historical past, whether it's the Spanish-Pueblo style of New Mexico or Mediterranean look in southern California.

Would any developer create a subdivision of Maginot Line concrete houses and call it Le Corbusier Fields? Not flaming likely. So who is imposing a school of design on the poor downtrodden public -- the domestic architects who add "non-functional" details, or the trendy mountebanks who design urban disfigurements with no unseemly ornament?

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 21, 2008 9:31 AM

I am the author of the piece cited above (Levit not Levin). My point in the article is in no way to support prohibitions of ornament. The cited list is an enumeration of reasons that are often given to censure ornament (and symbolism in architecture). These are not positions with which I agree or which are used in the article to argue against ornament. In fact, the point of the article is to argue against such censure and support the use of ornament independently of the crutch of function.

Posted by: robert levit on June 24, 2008 8:33 PM

Robert Levit -- Sincere apologies about the misspelling; getting that fact correct was something that was drilled into my skull when I took journalism training, but I really muffed it this time.

Your article was long and in extracting bits, it made it hard for readers (and maybe even me) to determine when you were paraphrasing and when the thought was yours. I did catch the drift that you weren't in complete agreement with the book, though I think your views might have been made more succinct and clear; they got somewhat lost in the length of the piece as well as jargon I'm not familiar with.

In any case, I wrote the piece because I was a little shocked that PC had reached the point where ornamentation might be on the verge (or over the line) of suspicion. It was those thoughts and phrases that I wanted to highlight.

Thank you for your interest, and I hope you will visit 2Blowhards in the future.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 24, 2008 10:13 PM

Here's an architecture link you might be interested in (just one picture).

Posted by: Noumenon on June 27, 2008 1:12 AM

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