Throughout the twentieth century, modernist architects tried to convince the world that simple, formalist architecture was more beautiful than its decorated alternative. Using emerging technologies in digital fabrication, architects should reappraise this now century-old suspicion of ornament to provide people with the highly decorated buildings that they prefer.
New technologies allow new decorative opportunities. Image by Dominic Stevens, generated using DALL·E
Simple, undecorated architecture was born: everyone could access it, but it spoke of necessity and not delight.
Throughout the twentieth century, architects of the modernist persuasion tried to convince the world that simple, formalist architecture was more worthy, correct, and/or beautiful than its decorated alternative. Ornament is ‘a crime’, wrote the architect Adolf Loos in a 1913 essay , citing the prevalence of tattoos amongst convicted criminals as part of his evidence. However, I don’t believe that the general populace has been convinced either by modernist buildings or the arguments for them. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in 2010 commissioned a UK study called People and places: Public attitudes to beauty , which involved extensive public engagement. The study found that, "one of the most striking areas of consensus was in the value people placed on old versus new buildings. Across all age groups, older buildings were invariably favoured as being more beautiful".
When did architects start to simplify buildings by removing decoration from facades and interior spaces, and why did they do this if it seems so unpopular?
Architects are opportunists and realists. In early twentieth century Europe, the labour movement, the growth of workers’ unions, and the continued march of industrialisation meant that hand-crafted work became increasingly unaffordable. In Germany, for example, the 1919 Weimar Constitution  enshrined in law the right to form unions, and Article 159 promised "suitable housing for every citizen". In support of this social movement, architects became interested in making architecture that was functional, cheap, and suited to mass production, delivering quality to the everyman. This movement aligned beautifully with the sober economic reality of the late 1920s. In 1923, G.F. Hartlaub created the term Neue Sachlichkeit  or ‘New Objectivity’ to describe design concerned with structure, materiality and function. The 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung, a showcase for prototypes of modern living, was exclusively formed of an undecorated formalist architecture designed by prominent architects of the day including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, J.J.P. Oud, Le Corbusier, and Pierre Jeanneret.
So, in simple terms, dignified conditions for construction workers made ornament expensive, and it was politically expedient to supply good, affordable housing to the now-enfranchised voting masses. Simple, undecorated architecture was born: everyone could access it, but it spoke of necessity and not delight. However, the deep longing for decoration, for richness of texture, for craft and ornament did not disappear. In a US survey  over 2000 people were asked to consider a set of images of buildings. Each set had two images: one historic building and a second, modern building of similar size and form. When asked which they preferred, 72% said they preferred the historic structure.
With new fabrication techniques, complex ornament is becoming economically viable once again. Faced with the restoration of a 1940s building at 574 Fifth Avenue, EDG, a New York-based architecture and engineering firm, developed digital techniques to scan existing dilapidated decorative elements, with 3D printed moulds used to form replacement elements. While this technique helps to make conservation and restoration projects affordable, it also opens creative doors to the future decorative architecture that I dream of. As early as 2012, Níall McLaughlin Architects’ facade design for Athletes’ Housing at the London Olympics used digital scans of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum to create storey-height decorated facade panels. At the time, this was specialised and expensive; now, ten years later, it begins to be affordable for the mass market. New AI technologies such as DALL·E can generate elaborate decorative images from language prompts, as seen in the images which accompany this piece.
I believe that architects should reappraise this now century-old suspicion of ornament and use emerging technologies of digital fabrication to provide people with the highly decorated buildings that they really enjoy and love.
With new fabrication techniques, complex ornament is becoming economically viable once again.
One Good Idea is a series of articles which focuses on the simple, concise discussion of a complex spatial issue. Each piece is presented as a starting point towards a topic that the author believes should be part of broader public discourse. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact email@example.com.
One Good Idea is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
1. A. Loos, ‘Ornement et Crime’, Les Cahiers d’aujourd’hui, 5, 1913, pp. 247-56.
2. People and places: Public attitudes to beauty, Ipsos MORI, 2010, p. 35.
3. Die Verfassung des Deutschen Reichs 1919.
4. D. Crockett, German Post-Expressionism: the Art of the Great Disorder 1918-1924, University Park, Pa, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
5. K. Capps for Bloomberg News, Classical or Modern Architecture? For Americans, It’s No Contest [website], https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-14/classical-buildings-beat-modern-ones-in-u-s-poll (accessed 8 February 2023).
Dominic Stevens is a lecturer in architecture at TU Dublin. He commenced practice as Dominic Stevens Architects in 1995 and founded JFOC Architects in 2017. His work has been exhibited in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Botkyrka Konsthall, Stockholm; the Swiss Foundation for Architecture, Mendrisio; and the Venice Biennale of Architecture. His writings about architecture have been widely published.
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