In Loos' essay, Ornament and Crime, "passion for smooth and precious surfaces" he explains his philosophy, describing how ornamentation can have the effect of causing objects to go out of style and thus become obsolete. It struck him that it was a crime to waste the effort needed to add ornamentation, when the ornamentation would cause the object to soon go out of style. Loos introduced a sense of the "immorality" of ornament, describing it as "degenerate", its suppression as necessary for regulating modern society. He took as one of his examples the tattooing of the "Papuan" and the intense surface decorations of the objects about him—Loos says that, in the eyes of western culture, the Papuan has not evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man, who, should he tattoo himself, would either be considered a criminal or a degenerate.
If one ponders the history of architecture and its decoration, (see Sir Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method for a broad overview), one is humbled by its diversity and wonder, and becomes embarrassed by today’s cheek that seeks to justify the slick blandness of our era with its flashy, smartly-distorted, different forms that lack any ideas from relevant theory, by mocking this past, as if this approach might be useful, even clever. The visions and concepts that have been framed by the twentieth century have all sought to make a virtue out of the sheer, stark void of our naked designs, whatever unique form they might be given, even suggesting that the lack of any decoration is superior to what is seen as the past’s frivolous, nonsensical whimsy: ‘more honest’ is the term used, ‘functional,’ suggesting that there is some guile in decorating that gets close to cheating, being immoral: a wasteful, useless indulgence, a perversion of expression, as if our efforts are not. This sermonising has nothing to do with the subject, nude bodies or otherwise; rather it involves only the methodology of past eras and their beliefs that are said to have ignored the simple purity of basic material form in favour of things flippantly excessive, misguided, ‘decorative’ and useless. The descriptive terms have become synonymous with the word ‘decoration’ itself. That there might be some rigorous symbolism in the works of other times means nothing to the ‘new’ thinking. There is something of the work efficiency factors here: time and motion relevance. The latent message is the cliché ‘less is more.’ In time and motion studies, this equated to ‘less time/effort, more output/profit.’ Architecturally, it referred to a minimalist approach, at least the stylistic appearance of things sparse and elemental. Was this Miesian term invented to legitimise the mockery, to justify it, in a similar fashion to the Hertzog analysis of his firm’s work that established a schedule to rationalise its bespoke, avant-garde quirkiness?: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/01/herzog-de-meuron-architecture-with-no.html
Vitrahaus Herzog & de Meuron
Our age seems happy with ad hoc, what might be called ‘decorative’ fantasies, those ‘visionary’ forms pieced together by Gehry and Hadid, et.al. These huge icons of random, self-centred, self-expression are used as if in the self-promotion of genius that is really just offbeat difference, unusual and unexpected distortions of forms once known as the ‘International’ style, now adopted, adapted and manipulated otherwise by computers: ‘morphed’ to surprise the eye. The concerns with this development that ironically dismisses historic decoration and seeks out its own bespoke characteristics in brazen, de-materialised, de-formed identity, have been sketched in other pieces, see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/09/zahas-architectural-car-design-strategy.html ; http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/ha-ha-ha-hadid-designs-for-world-class.html ; http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/new-gehry-projects-in-aleppo.html ; and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/01/pairs-16-gehry-inspires-hadid.html The approaches are all based on attitudes like that expressed in Adolf Loos’s pronouncement, ‘Ornament is a Crime.’ They all appear to adopt the narrow, cliché interpretation of Louis Sullivan’s dictum, ‘Form follows function,’ and use this as a basis for diversions and inversions; deviations and variations. Sullivan scoffed at the stupidity of the awkwardly huge, heavily sculptured, ‘non-functional’ Victorian parapets, preferring things rigorously ‘Gothic’ and rationally ‘Greek.’ Yet he decorated his buildings. The difference with his approach was, as he explained, that the parapet expressed itself as an unwieldy chunk of frivolous, unnecessary decoration with no essential function beyond being there as an additional, clumsy replica, a theatrically-styled copy to give an ‘historic’ image: a true irrelevance.
Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats should remain required reading for architects of all eras. It remains an inspirational work. Every concept of ‘progress,’ that apparent perpetual movement of things inexorably becoming ever better and better than any past, and anything in any past, should be abolished, dismissed as an irrelevant and misguiding concept. There is nothing in any future that requires that it must be better than any past other than when accompanied by those concepts and beliefs rooted in the dull notions of self-centred blind hope and rude optimism that sees things ‘new’ as always being better, superior. Our era rushes ‘forward’ with the idea that everything will be and must be improved in the future, if we only ‘move forward’ away from things past as quickly as possible: a movement we describe as ‘progress.’ The whole notion holds an irrationally expectant presence, labelling things ‘past’ as inadequate, inferior, prior to any future being envisaged, let alone experienced. All that is wished for is that these ‘past’ things will go, fade away into history, as history, the very minute they appear, to make way for the ‘next’ whatever. That the new technologies make everything today look so perfectly slick, and that of the past so clumsy, crude and crass – like the appearance of freehand graphics and hand writing – does nothing to help change ideas of and the demand for perpetual advancement that pass rude judgement on these ‘inferior’ formats and expressions whatever their real substance might be.
“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality.”
John Ruskin The Stones of Venice
There is no value given to the notion of learning from experience, the past; the immediate past or any of its eras. In technology, this reforming, anticipatory attitude means things becoming ever smaller, bigger, thinner, lighter, cheaper, faster, smarter, slicker, etc., anything different, even though we still have very little understanding of the impact that these gadgets and their instant obsolescence have on our lives. We carry this prompt redundancy attitude, this expectation of needed fast change, with its continuous, almost immediate dilapidation, degeneration, into every aspect of our existence, even architecture, only to frequently discover silent gaps, dark unknowns that we appear happy to ignore rather than explore. Indeed, our gadgets help us disregard these concerns, these doubts, intellectual chasms, with their entertaining distractions that lead to ever-new attractions and growing expectations: the next model; the upgrade; tomorrow’s anticipated, transformative secret. Technology supports our naive enthusiasm for a grand, ‘Star Wars’ future, the ever better and better, as it is in its own interests to do this; and we support technology in this game by allowing it to seek to achieve, even to promote this expectation without really knowing why, other than as some broad notion of advancement, improvement - ‘progress’: “as if this were necessarily so,” as Wittgenstein once said of ‘10-year’ scientific predictions. It may not be necessarily so at all. When might we be content? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/12/are-smart-cities-numb-to-possibilities.html
So it is that, with this same dismissive attitude to things of the past, Kindergarten Chats has been allowed to disappear from the reading lists of the young today, to become part of a forgotten ‘past,’ history, understood as an ‘old and irrelevant’ out-of-print publication. That Sullivan was addressing the ‘young architect’ as an educator makes no difference to the young or old today. This is not the only book to be so rudely treated. There are many, very many that have been shoved aside by the hype of the new. Trystan Edward’s Manners in Architecture has suffered the same fate. Manners no longer seem to matter in any field of interest today: they present as a show of weakness. Social media makes this clear; and Howard Robertson’s The Principles of Architectural Composition gets laughed at for its 1924 naivety by those who consider themselves superior in every and any way, without knowing why. The annoyance is that the young always believe that they all know better, that their opinion alone is ‘gospel.’ We have all been there in one way or another. One admires the new ambitions, visions, and the energy, but there is no guide today other than social responses to their ‘selfies’ - their self-expression and self-impression. If the books or works of past times do ever happen to be ‘rediscovered,’ they are perceived to be a part of the genius of the discoverer – ‘I recognised this’ - and are used for self-promotion, al la Gahry/Hadid-style: and why not? - c.f. Andrew Kudless at the Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University talk; and Dagmar Reinhardt, also at Bond, see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/exploring-definition-edge-condition-of.html who both speak of their work with the apparent attitude: “clever me, extending the work started by others whom I have ‘discovered’ and reinterpreted in my new and exciting work” - as just more ‘selfies’ praising ‘selfies.’
Louis Sullivan decoration
Sullivan might have mocked gaudy excrescences under his dictum ‘Form Follows Function,’ as he argued for a functional poetic in his work that was itself beautifully, eloquently decorated, as he noted, with florid work that was integral and relevant, expressive of the whole, touching on nature and its ideas and origins while enriching the expression organically. His understanding was never a single, limited, practical notion of essential purpose. It embodied the inverse to this cliché in the lesser known, even forgotten phrase, ‘Function Follows Form,’ a notion that spoke of a unique integrity and wholeness, a poetic synthesis (see Kenneth White poem in http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/experiencing-things-poetic.html and THE AIM OF ART in the sidebar), where “the function of the rose is the form of the rose; the form of the rose is the function of the rose.” Surprisingly, it was Sullivan who predicted the death of decoration, but only for an era. He saw that time was needed to re-establish the rigour; to re-discover the purpose; to be able to see things more clearly yet again. This era has now passed, or is coming to its conclusion, but decoration does not appear to have any resurgence. Why? What is going on? What might be needed for decoration to once again flourish with its own power and coherence, inner strengths, enrichments that lie beyond bland and bold, clever self-expression, no matter how many distortions and surprising differences this might involve?
One does indeed become embarrassed with today’s attitudes to the beauty and wonder of the past; for example, the classical forms with their complexities of inter-related decoration: see George Hersey The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Meaning-Classical-Architecture-Speculations/dp/0262580896 Over many eras, from ancient times to those recently modern, things classical have been built, and built again, never losing their power or authority. Why is it that we, today, (apart from Prince Charles et.al.), see this expression as a flippant farce, but have nothing similar to this coherence and authority in our architecture? Are we merely making sense out of our poverty of expression because we know and can do so little else? Are we placating our lazy ignorance with fabricated theory that excludes the complications of decoration, demeans it? One cannot but stand on the edge of the gulf, the void, and despair without some rationalisation that boasts a new understanding, a new hope, even if generated out of such doubt and poverty, despite the risks involved. But tattoos are now seen everywhere as body decoration. Is this the new beginning? Are we scared of the question: ‘What do I put where?’ in our architecture, and 'Why?' There appears to be little doubt with the marking of our bodies, given the remarkable diversity of images on display and their variety of locations. Do the architectural ‘tattoo’ decisions scare us; challenge us too much?
Can decoration help us regain some mental rigour; help us cope with the complexities of life that might be baffling us into excusing ourselves? The Gothic world knew how such stories and coherence in buildings could enrich, as did the Greek rigour too. When might we seek out a similar ‘life support’ beyond drugs and personal ‘selfie’ expression? Do other things have to come into place first?
“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.”
John Ruskin The Stones of Venice
A culture needs to have and to know its stories before it can celebrate them. Have we lost these and become as singular, lost souls meandering around in a fragmented solitude (see Kenneth White THE AIM OF ART in sidebar) screaming at the world, becoming stimulated by difference, claiming genius in anything strange, odd and unusual just to mark our place, MY place, as self-expression in a chaotic void of uncertainty? Does this mesmerising mess generate the interest in the tattoo – the markings, the makings, of ME, on ME?
Where are we? Who are we? What can we celebrate as a society, a culture? Consider Rosslyn Chapel and ask: ‘What is man?’
‘What is man that thou art mindful of him?’ (Psalm 8:4)
What is decoration?
What might it be?
What might it become today beyond an excused blandness, a baldness of bold form?
Loos concluded that "No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level ... Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength".
Hopefully tattoos don't represent a new beginning in architectural decoration
25 March 2017
The architects featured in the show (Rejected Architects) relied upon function rather than symmetry, with an emphasis on flexibility, lightness, and simplicity. "Ornament has no place," the pamphlet explained, "since hand-cut ornament is impracticable in an industrial age. The beauty of the style rests in the free composition of volumes and surfaces, the adjustment of such elements as doors and windows, and the perfection of machined surfaces.”
Hugh Howard Architecture's Odd Couple Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson Bloomsbury Press New York 2016