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A decorated world

Dominic Stevens

One Good Idea

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 [1], 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 [2], 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?


Image by Dominic Stevens, generated using DALL·E

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 [3] 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 [4] 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 [5] 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.


Image by Dominic Stevens, generated using DALL·E

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

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], (accessed 8 February 2023).


Dominic Stevens

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.

Related articles

Space healers

Eimear Arthur
One Good Idea
Eimear Arthur
Eimear Arthur

Picture the last hospital you were in – there are reasons it looked like that. At any moment, a healthcare setting is balancing the needs and priorities of patients, clinicians, management, and administrative and support staff. Efficiency, servicing, privacy, infection control, comfort, safety, and cost add further complexity. Design guides, evidence-based solutions, and building regulations are guide rails for the architectural process. But established processes often engender established solutions.

Now, picture an oncology day ward. A row of treatment chairs and drip stands separated by curtains, buzzing overhead lights, nursing staff filling notes on their knees. But what if those treatment chairs were more comfortable, more functional? What if jump seats [1] created useful spaces within a corridor, taking advantage of city views while maintaining required clear widths? What if instead of tired divider curtains, privacy came in the form of beautiful, artist-designed screens?

This is the kind of 'fresh perspective' design students offer, says Cathal Mac Dhaibhéid, doctor and 2022-23 Innovation Fellow with HSE Spark Innovation. HSE Spark is a frontline, staff-led initiative to improve healthcare using design principles and innovation methodologies [2], which has run many successful partnerships with students of design. Mac Dhaibhéid cites the example of Interaction Design Master’s students who whittled a 'fifty or sixty' page nursing admission form to just twelve pages, through a series of user interviews and prototyping. 'These students look at problems through a design lens', says Mac Dhaibhéid, 'and they’re not jaded by working in the public health system'.

Inspired by artist Sasha Sykes, Isobel Walsh proposed flower-embedded resin privacy screens. Image courtesy: Isobel Walsh

But up until the recent ‘Healing Spaces’ elective – delivered with TU Dublin School of Architecture, Building and Environment (SABE), the Mater Transformation Team, and the Mater Hospital’s Oncology Day Ward and Inpatient Unit – HSE Spark hadn’t collaborated with architecture students. Like many good ideas, Mac Dhaibhéid’s engagement with schools of architecture was borne of frustration. Galvanised by the spaces he encountered in medical practice – some illogically laid out, some poorly functioning, some merely uninspiring – and Christine Nickl-Weller and Hans Nickl’s 2013 book, Healing Architecture [3], he became increasingly interested in the therapeutic potential of space, and the missed opportunity that is unimaginative design. He says, 'You have all these advances in how cancer is treated, but where it’s treated hasn’t really changed'.

For Emma Geoghegan, architect and Head of Architecture at SABE, Mac Dhaibhéid’s proposal to collaborate was too good to miss. There are established postgraduate programmes in healthcare architecture, but a focused module on healthcare spaces is absent from most undergraduate architecture syllabuses. Geoghegan notes that this is a 'gap', saying the design of healthcare environments is 'not just about typology, it’s about how you engage with people'. User engagement is key to the profession of architecture, and though many final-year architecture students have worked in practice, few have much experience of engaging with end users – this task generally falling to more senior team members.

In designing and delivering ‘Healing Spaces’, it made geographical and ideological sense for Geoghegan and Mac Dhaibhéid to work with the Mater Hospital. The hospital is within TU Dublin's direct community, and 'Community Engaged Research and Learning' is a stated aim of the university [4]. Critically, the Mater is, according to Mac Dhaibhéid, 'fertile ground for doing things a bit differently', as evidenced by the existence of Mater Transformation, an embedded unit within the hospital that’s dedicated to working with frontline staff to co-design and deliver change [5].

Regularly collaborating with both HSE Spark and the National College of Art and Design, Mater Transformation has extensive experience of running collaborative problem-solving processes. ‘What we’ve done is set up structures that can bring people together,’ says Aileen Igoe, Mater Transformation’s Lean and Systems Thinking Lead. These structures were critical to tackling potentially sensitive issues related to working in a functional hospital, such as GDPR and access, says Geoghegan. 'Things that might normally be challenging, we were able to resolve very quickly' [6].

Healing Spaces 'definitely felt like something special', Igoe says. Students were tasked with the redesign of the Mater Hospital’s Oncology Day Ward and Inpatient Unit, which sits within a building that’s less than ten years old, and is, as Igoe – who studied architecture – points out, generally well designed and considered. But the service has expanded, and healthcare architecture is often constrained by budgets, timelines, and HBN (Health Building Notes) standards [7]. Whereas by listening very carefully to staff needs, and through them, the needs of the patients [8], the SABE students gained a 'nuanced understanding of service' that allowed them to achieve 'the attention to detail that you might see in a domestic extension'.

Geoghegan, Mac Dhaibhéid, and Igoe all stress that the project’s success would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and openness of the Mater’s 'fantastic' clinical staff. Alongside oncology staff consultation, the SABE students received expert advice from Jennifer Whinnett, Senior Healthcare Planner at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust; Ailish Drake, an architect and landscape designer at Drake|Hourigan Architects with extensive user engagement experience; and Clare White, Director at O’Connell Mahon Architects.

Nine students – eight studying architecture and one studying interior design – [9] worked collaboratively, each tackling different issues to develop a cohesive solution. Daniel Herbst considered how spatial efficiency could be maximised to create more staff workstations. Alannah Hayes redesigned the bridge corridor to incorporate glare-free recessed lighting and jump seats with views of the city. Balancing the therapeutic value of nature, against the maintenance and infection control issues that planting brings [10], Isobel Walsh proposed commissioning Irish artist Sasha Sykes [11] to make operable resin privacy screens, embedded with flowers. The breadth of the students’ thinking surprised and impressed Mac Dhaibhéid: 'The final presentation was incredible'.

Alannah Hayes reimagined an under-exploited bridge corridor. Image courtesy: Alannah Hayes

It’s likely that Healing Spaces will have a life beyond the module’s twelve-week duration, both in terms of the students’ actual proposals and in fostering future collaborations. Geoghegan says that within a few days of the students’ final presentation, Tracy Fitzpatrick, the Mater’s Directorate Nurse Manager for cancer, had sourced quotes for different aspects of the proposals: 'That really impressed me'. This being Mater Transformation’s first time working with architecture students, they don’t have established pathways for delivering architectural projects, but Igoe’s undaunted: 'We’ve manged it with NCAD in other design disciplines, and there’s various funds we can apply to'. She stresses that they’d like to keep the SABE students involved in some way, as the designs are theirs. Of working with Mater Transformation, Geoghegan says, 'It feels like a natural partnership for SABE. My hope is that we will continue to run an elective like this and build on it'.

As for the module’s first run, the SABE students have shown that, with focused, informed imagination, a healthcare environment can be both clinical and beautiful. An oncology ward environment can stimulate and comfort patients who may be there for extended periods, distressed, fatigued, or bored, awaiting or receiving treatment. There is so much energy and innovative thought in architecture schools, often applied in the abstract. Healing Spaces allowed students to channel their energy and creativity towards 'something really useful"', says Geoghegan.

One Good Idea

Taking architectural education beyond the speculative can transform real-world environments – and healthcare settings are ideal beneficiaries of student creativity and innovation.


Something more than management

Andrew Clancy
One Good Idea
Andrew Clancy
Eimear Arthur

It is a strange time. Conflict is general, but there is one area of surprising consensus: Una Mullally and Michael McDowell are writing columns that agree with each other [1]. The cause of this congruence between left and right is the proposed reworking of the St Stephen’s Green shopping centre – a design both correspondents decry for its blandness and generic expression [2]. In the absence of full-time built environment critics in the Irish popular press, Mullaly and McDowell have each written extensively, with different emphases, about matters of architecture, urban form, and planning. Their critiques of the proposed development express views common in our society. While James Toomey Architects’ shopping centre might not be the most important building, with its clip on "Mississippi river boat façade" [3], the journalists’ point stands: so many facades, reworkings, and new builds betray a lack of consideration of threshold, of contribution to public space, of the linking to and protection of communities, or of seeking to create humane and delightful places to live. This is not a critique of architects per se, but of our planning system.


It is worth briefly setting out the status quo: most buildings are constructed by private individuals or companies, each acting in its own self-interest. These individuated projects become the public faces of our cities and towns, shaping our movement patterns, our ability to find repose or respite, and the network of social encounters that constitute a society. Acting to regulate and temper these disparate development processes is our planning system. ‘Forward planning’ teams within local authorities shape policies in the short, medium, and longer terms, while ‘development management’ departments consider specific applications for development permission. Beyond this, An Bord Pleanála adjudicates on appeals to planning decisions throughout the state.


There is something quaint about this, a simple system for a simpler age. It assumes an episodic pace of development – where extant works can be reasoned against proposed, at a pace which allows things to cohere. It’s a system ill-equipped to respond to the contemporary pace of development. While pre-planning systems exist, feedback tends to be high-level, strategic. Points raised may often be set aside by the applicant in the aspiration that a higher body may overrule local planners. Tactics shape decisions. Sometimes a flat refusal is not in the public interest; conditions requiring the omission of a floor, or even an entire block, are reasonably common. But these retroactive measures are probably the least useful ways to ‘manage’ development.


Applicants, for their part, assemble ever more complex design teams with specialisms added as tools to bolster a case, not necessarily to improve design. Many anticipate An Bord Pleanála as the final adjudicator. There is little incentive to justify the increased time (and therefore fee) an architect or landscape designer requires for a more thoughtful approach, as this will rarely have demonstrable impact on the planning decision or the financial modelling of the proposal. None of this is the planners’ fault, but a product of the system. As we consider a major overhaul of planning regulation here [4], it is curious that there is not more debate about this aspect. The primary effect of the proposed planning reform will be a more robust and streamlined system, but not one necessarily delivering better design.


It is time to consider using design review panels. These exist in many forms in various parts of the world. Some, such as those common within universities or major corporations, are specific to institutions, or to special planning areas, while in countries such as the UK these panels form part of the general infrastructure of the planning system. Design review panels bring together diverse specialisms to critique designs as they develop. A panel may include architects, landscape architects, housing experts, community engagement experts, and many more as required. These experts, paid for their time, review applications at early and late stages and provide non-binding feedback. Review events may resemble a design review in university, with a verbal presentation and conversational feedback.


The best design review processes are timely, occurring at an early design stage. They are proportionate, recognising that not every project warrants the process: perhaps key sites, streets or scales of work are identified as triggering a review. They involve rotating panels of diverse and skilled experts, offering objective feedback in a transparent and accessible manner. Most importantly, they are advisory: they do not act to design, but to inform a design process. However, their impact can be profound, allowing decisions taken early on to greatly improve anything from a proposal’s integration within an area, to the nature of housing layouts, and even aesthetic expression. Planners naturally draw on the transcripts of these sessions – and developers, knowing this, seek to bolster the design strength of their proposal. Conversations led by design review panels can, say, make a case for increased density coupled with clear qualitative improvements. In other cases, panels may act as powerful advocates against demolition, or champion the adjustment of early ideas to cater for the full breath of diverse needs that exist within our communities.


Design review can be malleable, recruiting and developing expertise across local authority boundaries and making space for arguments which may greatly improve the built environment over time. They also make explicit to applicants a requirement for skilled, adequately resourced designers. This impact ripples beyond the specific sites being reviewed and modifies the entire development eco-system over time. Substantial literature exists internationally on the benefits of the system [5], literature which will be vital in designing a successful Irish approach. Trials are key, to allow the new system to adjust and develop in light of how it is working.


None of the above is a panacea, but it might be a way to begin responding to the valid critiques raised by commentators left and right. Design review panels have the potential to positively reshape our cities and towns, setting out a new vision of our country for decades to come.

One Good Idea

The current proposed reform of the Irish planning process will not necessarily deliver better design, argues Andrew Clancy – but design review panels could.


The urgency of slow analysis

Jonathan Janssens
One Good Idea
Jonathan Janssens
Eimear Arthur

The COP28 climate talks in Dubai concluded one week ago at the time of writing. Astonishingly, it is the first time in COP's thirty-year existence that a 'transition away from fossil fuels' [1] has formed part of the final discussion. Experts argue, however, that despite the significance and potential ramifications of this outcome, we are still nowhere near to achieving our goal of a 43% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 [2].

In part, this problem arises from how we see value in our world. The traditional value systems which we have always adhered to create a dichotomy of what is and is not valuable. Case in point: we still value fossil fuels enough to accept the destruction that we know they cause.

We judge everything in terms of value: monetary value, historical value, cultural value, political value, and so on. And of course, value systems exist for a reason – they are the decision-making processes through which we determine where to focus energy and interest. However, the flip side of this coin is the invalidation of that which we have decided is of lesser – or no – value. The inequality inherent in these systems is evident when we consider which cultures are prioritised, whose traditions are supported, and what narratives are encouraged.

Considering value systems as they relate to architecture, that which is discarded also comes at high cost. Engaging with the built environment requires engagement with physical resources and materials. In the context of the climate emergency, how might we reassess architecture's value systems, perhaps in a way that might better equip us to address the crisis at hand?

Journey from front door to nun’s bedroom. © plattenbaustudio / UCD Architecture students, March 2020

We might first look to the existing value systems that prevail within architecture. Traditionally, we assessed built fabric for its historical significance, cultural importance, aesthetic qualities, craftsmanship, and so on. We rarely question the value of a 100-year old town hall made from local stone in the middle of a country town; and why would we? It's obvious.

In recent years, the lenses through which we measure value have diversified, from Assemble's Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool, arguing for community strength and pride as a value to be supported and strengthened through even the most everyday of housing estates, to Forensic Architecture’s studies of the built environment for its value as evidence in legal and political processes.

Or, to the value of architecture as a vessel for the accumulation of everyday collective memory, be that positive or negative. We, as part of CoLab81-7 [3], recently undertook such a study with students from the School of Architecture at UCD within the former Magdalene Laundry buildings on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin. Within the format of a month-long drawing workshop, the students were tasked with examining the constructed fabric of the remaining buildings, including any – and, importantly, all – traces of inhabitation that they observed during their visit.  

To begin, students carefully surveyed a route through the convent building from public to private; from the heavy timber front door at street level, to the (almost) empty nuns’ rooms on the top floor. Along the way, the students recorded everything they witnessed: every tile, door handle, window, electrical box, light fitting and curved handrail, but also every scrap of newspaper and piece of detritus, even the long-dead pigeons littering the staircase. The study raised as many questions as answers: why, for example, the formica vanity sink with five inbuilt toothbrush holders, installed in the bedrooms of nuns expressly forbidden from ever starting a family?

The CoLab81-7 study fed into the efforts of a larger advocacy group known as Open Heart City; the name a reference to open heart surgery and its system of precise yet radical intervention. The aim of this intense and comprehensive survey was to unearth both the seen and unseen qualities and questions of the laundry‘s spaces, studying permanent and temporal traces made by both time and occupancy to examine how the building's architecture supported or facilitated its carceral past. The ambition was to identify some precise yet radical move that might bring new life to a lifeless place.

Photo taken during visit to former Magdalene Laundry in 2020. In recent years the abandoned site has been used as a storage yard for building materials. © CoLab81-7, January 2020

But what about the ugly 80's prefab office block on a lucrative city-centre site? Such buildings are routinely demolished due to market pressures and public disinterest; the effort, energy and material resources which went into their construction still falling on the not valuable side of our value coin.

The architecture collective Material Cultures argues that 'whenever we build, we either contribute to or counteract processes of change' [4]. If we are going to address the looming climate disaster, the greatest change humankind has ever known, then we must act in radical and unconventional ways. We must start by seeing everything as valid – the 100-year old town hall and the 80s office block, the 90s housing estates and the abandoned institutional buildings with difficult pasts. As architects, we are in a unique position to both influence and facilitate this change; to act like physicians, working to identify the most efficient, least harmful way to treat the patient without ever debating whether the patient deserves saving in the first place.

Protest placards spotted in the window of an architects' office in central Berlin. © plattenbaustudio, December 2023

As soon as possible, the world must free itself from fossil fuels, and we must recalibrate our understanding of what is valuable and what is not. We could begin, for example, by eliminating the idea that anything is without value; instead starting with a baseline of 100% value in our existing buildings, materials and resources and working backwards from there. Like a doctor presented first with symptoms and then with scalpels, we would endeavour to spend time understanding the 'patient' in their entirety, synthesising their past history and present condition, before using the tools available with precision to ensure a healthy future and a long life.  

One Good Idea

In the wake of the recent COP28 talks, it is increasingly necessary to challenge traditional value systems in architecture, with a radical reassessment required in the context of the climate emergency. This article delves into how our default judgements, often skewed towards certain structures, need reevaluation in light of environmental sustainability, drawing insights from various architectural examples and their historical, cultural, and material significance.



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