Ornament, is generally defined as a decoration used to embellish parts of a building, has also been a controversial debating topic when architecture was introduced to the Modernism period. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, absence of ornaments became a hallmark of Modern architecture and equated the moral virtues of honesty, simplicity and purity. Le Corbusier, one of the prominent modernist figures, had always supported the ideals of simplistic and honest design. He blamed the deceit in ornamentations as it disguised the flaws in manufacture.
However by the mid-1950s, he broke his own rules by producing several highly expressive, sculptural concrete works due to his realization of ornaments could equally serve practical purposes in architecture. In the essay Decorating Appropriately, French architect and theorist Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc unfolded numerous clear ideas about how and in what circumstances ornament should be employed by looking at different approaches to ornamentation in the cultures of Egypt, Greece and the Middle Ages.
The first and perhaps the oldest approach is the natural ornament adopted by the ancient Egyptian culture. Ornaments were inherent in the building’s material and they took the forms from the natural world and decorated with the images of it. The second approach of ornamentation is the result of ancient Greek civilization. Many new forms of ornaments were created at that time and they served to articulate the building visually, organizing it into a series of coordinated visual units that could be comprehended as a whole.
Viollet-le-Duc believed this approach is the most rational because its fitness and clearness have unified the entire structure. Aside from the Parthenon mentioned in the essay, the Temple of Hephaestus is another example that belongs to the second approach of ornamentation. Only 18 of 68 metopes of the temple were sculptured and they were mostly located on the east side of the structure, the rest of the metopes were painted. The third ornamentation system appeared in the Middle Ages, it was a system derived from the Egyptian and the Greek approaches yet developed differently regarding to the composition.
Although colossal sculpture and bas-relief were not allowed, figures are grouped and concentrated to create a scenic effect and dynamic contrast between the rich and plain parts. Viollet-le-Duc appreciated this system remarkably in his essay as it provided the greatest variety of expression that can be achieved. In conclusion ornamentation functions beyond a decoration but equally a cultural reference, a symbolic communication, a suggestion of individuality, as well as design tactics for establishing scales, signaling entries and aiding direction finding.
The notions suggested by Viollet-le-Duc on the application of ornaments should be considered as very valid and still applicable to architectures today. Ornamentation should always engage in the building structure as a whole to create sympathy between ornament and structure so that each enhancing the value of the other. From the ancient Egyptian time to the current technology-dominated era, ornament continuously evolves to have a broader meaning and different definition.
Historically the surface behind the ornaments has been seen as a background wanted to be wore. The technology and software at our disposal now gives us enormous control over the form and therefore ornaments and structure are no longer an individual unit. One of the greatest examples would be the residential tower in Dubai designed by Zaha Hadid, which the skin is perforated with hundreds of geometric openings in an amazingly complex arrangement producing a graphically elegant facade treatment.
As the tower rises, the frequency of openings becomes greater so that the cladding becomes lighter as it reaches up toward the sky. Today ornamentation has been integrated into architecture structurally and conceptually. Whether we are about to enter a digital age with the intellectual ornament that has been substantially altered, a century after Viollet-le-Duc’s great polemic, his considerations are still truly applicable to the architecture in the present days.
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