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Shaping Architectural Ornament

Natale Cozzolongo 

From tribal face painting to ancient friezes to digital opulence, the practice of ornament is a declaration: “I was here. I existed.” While this mode of self-actualization is constant throughout time, attitudes about ornament and the resultant ornamental artifact vary significantly. What follows are four distinct factors that shape our current impulse to adorn.

Ornament in architecture began with the agricultural revolution, during which manual fabrication varied from slave/livestock hybrids to highly skilled craftsmen. The limits of production were obvious. Mechanical fabrication prevailed in the realm of the factory, which resulted in infinite reproduction, fueling critiques from John Ruskin1  to Adolf Loos.2 Digital fabrication is rooted in the algorithm, which can optimize ornament for performance, economy, and affect. Unlike manual labor or mechanical reproduction, when labor is performed by computer processers, ornament can achieve exuberance through infinite variation.3

Design processes
Digital design processes have the potential to revolutionize how ornament is created. The practitioners of Modernism couldn’t envision a design process outside of the analogue. While this cumbersome process required a great deal of careful consideration, it was also time consuming and resistant to multiple iteration. By contrast, ornament designed digitally can be generated, critiqued, refined, regenerated ad-infinitum at rapid speed. If done thoughtfully, computational design will lead to invention at a pace much faster than the Modernists ever dreamed.

Climate Awareness
Pagan architecture, art nouveau, and current digital expressions exemplify the figural influence of natural systems in ornament. We’ve long admired natural systems for their beauty4 and functionality. No longer sufficient for ornament to embody the beauty of natural systems, it is now challenged to perform according to a broad range of criteria,5 such as environmental stewardship. Ornament is now justified according to its beauty and its broadly conceived functionality. Instead of beauty nd function being mutually exclusive, they have become inseparable.

Depictions of battle on the frieze of Greek temples are the epitomes of allegorical ornament. If ornament is a vessel for cultural significance, what is its role in an age of eroding cultural boundaries? The subject matter of allegories must now appeal to the global audience. Corporations have designed brands that successfully speak to a universal market. All too often architectural ornament only fortifies these brands. The iconography of global capitalism competes for the minds and hearts of those who would before stare up at stained glass in awe of the beauty and enlightenment it offered. The potential power of architectural ornament is in serving the interests of the dispersed global citizenry instead of serving the profits of a narrow and incredibly wealthy clientele.

By urging ornament in architecture to transcend decoration, new technologies and challenges have revived its importance. While the technology suggests how we can beautifully and efficiently adorn architecture, the new challenges require that architecture and ornament cannot be separated.

1. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (Project Guttenberg) accessed August 3, 2011, http://www.
2. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime (George Washington University), accessed August 3, 2011,
3. Charles Jencks, Farshid Moussavi and Marjan Colletti, “The Return of Ornament,” ICON 078, December 2009, accessed August 5, 2011, index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=435&id=4248
4. Gregg Lynn, TED Talks: Gregg Lynn on Calculus in Architecture, February 2005. Posted: January 2009. Accessed: August 5, 2011. design.html
5. Jencks, “The Return of Ornament.” In this discussion Farshid Moussavi seeks to broaden the meaning of performance.