Architectural Ornament: Dead or Alive

Modernist architecture’s rejection of ornament is understandable. The Modernists had no idea what any of it meant. So it seemed stupid to them. So they excised it.

Ditto for all traditional forms. These were all meaningless to the Modernists. So they rejected them, root and branch. In this, they were aided by developments in the economics and technology of building. But the impoverishment of modern architecture was spiritual before it was material.

*Everything* is spiritual before it is material.

In traditional architecture, ornaments all signify. They all have meanings, and those meanings all terminate ultimately (albeit generally by way of a chain of connotations and denotations) upon the Ultimate and our proper relation to him.

The sacred terminus ad quem of traditional architectural ornament is clear enough in temples and churches (albeit arcane to most moderns, alas: they vaguely feel that the trifolium, the rose window, the vault, the Mogen David are sublimely sacred, but they have no idea why they are sacred in plain concrete fact, for they have no notion of what these ornaments mean). When it comes to the ornamental traditions of neo-classical architecture, or to the form of traditional houses, it is less obvious. Yet as with so many things we take for granted in “secular” culture (as sport, drama, warfare, the hunt, agriculture, etc. – even, indeed, rank commerce and politics), the former derive all from the ancient rites of sacrifice, old already in the Bronze Age; while the latter echoes the notion that houses and their households are domestic temples, each best and most properly arrayed so as to accommodate a yearly round of homely sacred ritual – indeed, for millennia, the custom was to bury the honored ancestors in the floor of the house, and to invoke their presence at each meal (as saints and nobility are buried in churches, and all the holy dead partake of the one eucharistic feast).

Likewise also for ancient roads, and for the plans of cities: their prominent features were traditionally oriented to celestial phenomena. For example, the gates of old cities (so often twelve in number) often point to the gates of the rising or setting sun at various seasons. Each gate was a jewel, a tribe, an angel: as the Essene Gate in ancient Jerusalem.

In traditional cultures, all building was sacred. The mason, the carpenter, the architect, the surveyor, the gardener: these were all sacred offices.

[In traditional cultures, of course, there are no merely profane offices, for in coherent cultures ordered by and to the Logos, everything not essentially ordered to evil partakes of the sacred, at least a bit.]

The Modernist architects forgot the signification of architectural ornaments, or never learnt it. This might have been due to a simple failure of pedagogy, or to their own uncomprehending puerile rejection of the category of the supernatural, to which all ornament even now refers. Or both. More likely the latter, actually: for, what can the supernaturally intended teaching of a traditional master of the building arts seem to his student who has rejected supernature, other than the most arrant nonsense?

Ornaments became then to the Modernists meaningless, empty, superfluous, expensive, indeed somewhat disgusting adulterations of the pure austere utility that was the only meaning or signification their materialism was competent to understand.

It made perfect sense, given the terms available to them. It has not worked out well.

Post-modernism in architecture is a reaction to the Modernist rejection of architectural meaning, and thus of any architectural language. It wants to re-introduce the vernacular meanings of traditional architectural forms – including ornament – if only for purely utilitarian reasons: namely, that people (including the architects themselves) simply like the result much better than the stark banality of the International Style, and find it more comfortable.

But as you may have noticed, post-modern ornament never quite works. It fails to close the deal. Post-modern buildings are more pleasant than their modernist precursors, to be sure. But their gesture at meaning is a simulacrum only; it is fake. It is uncomprehending, artful enough but stulted, dead, ineluctably meaningless despite its earnest noble intentions. It is akin to the evolutions of cargo cults, who did not understand what airplanes or white men were.

A successfully humane and truly beautiful built environment awaits the rediscovery by architects of the sacred language of building, implicitly also then of all material nature, and of the consequent hieratic aspect of their own profession – and of their duty thereto.

15 thoughts on “Architectural Ornament: Dead or Alive

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  3. Five years ago SUNY Oswego tore down its old Chemistry and Physics building and spent thirty-five million dollars to build a new Science Center. The building is large and sprawling. It has “half floors.” That’s right – there’s a Second Floor A and a Second Floor B and ditto in its third story. The “half floors” are not directly connected with one another. Users of the building wanting to go from Second Floor A to Second Floor B must find a special flight of stairs that leads from one to the other. The Shineman Science Center is not only a paradigmatic expression of postmodern architecture; it is also a symbol for the total deconstruction of meaning in Western culture.

  4. It may be worth noting that high modernism in architecture is also called the “International Style.” This was because it did not grow from any tradition, but leapt complete from the rationalist mind of the deracinated modern architect. It is no wonder that the results are alienating, since the whole idea was to deny the peoples of the world their traditional “homes.”
    As you say, the theory of the International Style combined with the capitalist drive for efficiency, the result being mile upon mile of secular squalor.
    Personally, I think that one test of a building style or material is how it ages. For instance, an old stone wall looks better than a new stone wall, whereas an old cinderblock wall looks worse than a new cinderblock wall (which was no great shakes to begin with). Wood ages well, fiberglass badly. Traditional farm buildings age well if they are maintained, and even make interesting ruins. Sheet metal pole barns age poorly and offend the eye when they are half-collapsed.
    Another test is whether anyone would hang a picture (painting or photograph) of such a building in their home. I live in a small city (population approaching 200,000), and apart from a couple of the buildings at the university, there is not a single building I would care to have a picture of.
    Yet another test is to compare older and newer churches and schools. The distinct academic and ecclesiastical styles held out against modernism somewhat longer than was the case in other building types, so attractive (and ornamented) schools and churches were built well into the twentieth century. But after 1950 or so, the great decline begins. The new schools look like facilities for light industry, the churches like airplane hangars.

    • I like those tests. My impression is that almost all buildings built before WWII pass the test of time. They look better and better with age. This goes even for “purely profane” buildings like factories and warehouses. Indeed, even old industrial machines pass that test. They also, all, pass the test of whether anyone would want a photo of them in his house. People love photos of old boilers, engines, trains, cars, etc. This is interesting, given that when these machines and buildings were introduced, they were seen by contemporaries as “dark satanic mills.”

      Perhaps it is just as simple as this: compared to what came after them, the factories and warehouses of the 19th century are gorgeous, homely, friendly places; whereas compared with what they replaced – ancient villages or farmland – they are ugly.

      Also interesting: modern machines tend to hold up better than modern buildings. The cars of the sixties – which I thought at the time were ugly – look better and better. Trains, airplanes and ships, too, are almost all handsome. They look good to begin with, and keep looking that way.

      Why? Because what absolutely *must* work must perforce agree with reality, with Nature, and – implicitly – with Nature’s God.

      To the list of sacred technical offices I already adduced – mason, carpenter, architect, surveyor, gardener – we should perhaps add another created by the industrial revolution: engineer.

      There is an argument that most buildings built since WWII were intended to be disposable. They are not intended to last, but rather to be recycled for their materials, and replaced. This is why they are built with little thought for truly effective shelter from the elements. Thank Heaven for planned obsolescence of such monstrosities! Please God, may that work out as planned!

  5. “The new schools look like facilities for light industry.” The Science Center that I mentioned has that look. A decade ago most of the rest of the SUNY Oswego campus buildings were architecturally amalgamated into a single enclosed structure. The interiors of that structure, where Richard Cocks and I teach our classes, look less like light industry than they do like the lobby of a mid-price traveler’s hotel. From an external viewpoint, supposing one could find such a viewpoint without renting an airplane, the structure resembles the dystopian domed city in the film Logan’s Run. It is once again not merely architecturally jejune but a symbol of subscendence!

    • Yes, typically in places with no snow and limited rain. The pitched roof has a functional explanation as well as a symbolic meaning. What seems significant, though, is when a culture with a tradition of pitched roofs goes to flat roofs. There will always be technological enablers, such as the development of coal tar in the West, but there is also a metaphysical aspect as well.

  6. Re: Modernist architecture: It’s not much of a consolation, but think of it this way: at least, in the case of building design, engineering and other practical constraints fortunately tended to prevent the architects from realizing the full intent of aesthetic Modernism in their designs the way 20th century painters and others did in their art, with the semi-happy result that those designs generally did not subscend the level of the merely utilitarian and Philistine, and fell short of the depths of total aesthetic depravity sought after by the Modern art of the time.

    “Indeed, even old industrial machines […] pass the test of whether anyone would want a photo of them in his house.”

    My parents had a very, very old Singer sewing machine. All of its exposed steel surfaces were decorated with intricate scrimshawed ornamentation like you’d find on a high-end custom shotgun and nowhere else today. I figure that the manufacturer figured that the old-school middle class people of the day- back when the middle classes still had non-subscendent, “bourgeois” cultural aspirations and tastes- would be reluctant to have rank industrial machinery inside of their homes, and so the manufacturer did whatever it could to class the machine up.

  7. I thought for a long time that after the war, cities like Dresden, Berlin or Vienna lacked the necessary skilled people, resources and funds to rebuild the ravaged cities. I know now that today, as then, even money is subjected to planned obsolescence.
    Culture is so not nature in the sense that humans have the innate ability to create entropic disorder all by themselves, betraying all our predecessors have achieved. And instead of being shamed, some insist on receiving accolades for their crimes.. um… achievements.
    Quousque tandem abutere patientia nostra,… ?

  8. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2016/04/24) - Social Matter

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