A Requiem to Ornament

With the turn of the 20th century, our beloved, ever-familiar, gray-haired olden friend was announced dead. For a time now that she started to exhibit signs of her slowly creeping expiry; she seemed to be always consumed by the glorious dream of her past, unable to distinguish herself among the ever-advancing crafts. Many of her dear ones have struggled for years to rehabilitate her, to find her a new place in the world – but all in vain.

You see, Modernism killed ornament, or so it wanted to believe. They said ornament belonged to the past, that it is primitive, a sign of degeneracy. The new man has outgrown ornament, it didn’t give him any pleasure but rather it reduced it. The modern man stands at the peak of human evolution and as so he has freed himself from the weight of ornament’s burden (Loos, 1908).

The modernists celebrated the death of ornament. For them there was no greater joy than the one given through the aesthetics of the plain object, the plain building. The new aesthetic morality consisted of transparency – architecture which is sincere and readable, with its functions exhibited through its form, no longer disguising them with ‘diseased’ embellishments and ornamentations (Moussavi, 2008).

During the next six decades that followed, ornament was believed to be long gone into the pages of history, belonging only in anthropologic textbooks describing primitive human societies. Ornament was labeled as an anachronistic tool used in traditional societies as a means of differentiation and individuality, which had no place in modern society who wishes to suppress it. Ornament had lost its function and therefore had to die.

Genealogy of Beauty

Forward in time to this day, something has cracked in the podium of moderna. Six decades after ornament’s last breathes, contemporary man has lost its progressive zeal. He’s squinting back to long-dead ornament. Some examples of this crisis can be seen in the works of postmodern architects such as The Guild House by Robert Venturi (1963) on which he installed an enormous ornamental golden antenna to unite the building with its geriatric users, and Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1978) which employed historicist ornaments realized in modern materials such as stainless steel and neon to echo the origins of the Italian community in New Orleans.

Ornament was forcefully resurrected from the dead, and the role she played was for the architect to decide (Ling, 2010). Could it be that society was temporarily experiencing a trend of regression? Maybe contemporary man is more degenerated than his ancestor counterpart? Perhaps the modernists simply got ornament all wrong.

In the 21st century a new, more convincing theory of ornament is at our disposal. Denis Dutton’s “Darwinian theory of beauty” affronts contemporary perceptions of aesthetics with an evolutionary, originally reproductive function of ornament (Dutton, 2002).

The origins and function of ornament has been a matter of speculation and opinion before, however, Dutton proposes a much more thorough, comprehensive and convincing theory; he traces human craft back to its most primary expression ever to be found: The Acheulian hand axe, a prehistoric chopper. These stone tools are as old as humanity, some will argue even older, from a time we were yet to develop a language – about two and a half million years ago.

And evidence shows we loved our choppers: these symmetrical teardrop-shaped stones were unearthed anywhere the early human used to roam, across almost all continents and dating over thousands of centuries.
These artefacts were made by the thousands, often crafted from attractive materials and many times show no signs of use (Dutton, 2002).

Then what were they used for?
Dutton suggests they were in fact the first ornament. In this sense, an ornament is a work of art, a practical tool transformed into an aesthetic object. But the non-practical ornament still bared a fundamental function: as a manifest of elegance and virtuosity, it was a tool wellmade.

For many centuries, and to this day, the ornament is an indicator of fitness, a display of performance projecting attractive personal qualities on its manufacturer or owner, the artificial equivalent to the peacock’s tail. In humans, hence, the ornament is a fitness signal for superior consciousness or skill. For generations capable humans used ornament to leverage their social status, gain more power and resources and ultimately, to gain a reproductive advantage (Dutton, 2002).

Finding the Missing Link

So, were the modernists right to announce ornament dead? It seems but reasonable today that ornament has deceived them, disguised herself with a new fresh look to cover her silver locks. The modernists wanted to believe they have finally abolished the old disease plaguing humanity, holding it back from evolving (Loos, 1908). But what they failed to understand is that ornament was bigger than them, it is inherent in their DNA, and it is human nature. And even though they radically changed its expression, drawn it to its most minimal existence- it was still there. In its evolutionary essence, ornament does not contradict aesthetic minimalism, transparency or readability, it coexists with them.

The accentuated readability of modernist architecture is in itself an ornamental expression, to say, in its time it was a manifestation of higher consciousness, superior moral and taste, a style which identifies with the rational, modern man. The ornamental urge in itself does not dictate a scale of embellishment, a detail or a carving, as Loos seemed to argue. Just as the Acheulian hand axe fulfilled its aesthetic purpose using only simple symmetry, a rational shape and an attractive texture to induce pleasure in its humanoid beholder, so does modern architecture uses simple rules of a well-thought program, clear surfaces and primary geometry to inspire awe.

It is needless to say that even in its ascetic plain forms, the modernist movement still made way to aesthetic expressions, which didn’t always have a practical purpose, for instance, the Seagram building in New York (Van der Rohe, Johnson, 1958) that incorporates a decorative I-beam detail on the building façade. Thus, by Loos’s own terms, such buildings could be regarded as a waste of human resources just as well (Loos, 1908).

Contemplating this theory, there seems to be a pattern emerging throughout human history that might explain the modernist experience and the ones that followed right after in recent decades. Going back to inspect our pre-historical relatives, amongst the higher geological stratum of the earth, archeologists eventually couldn’t find any more choppers. Instead, they started unearthing more complex, expressive artifacts, an early remain of human bursting creativity, such as shell necklaces and miniature figurines of women and animals (Dutton, 2010). When trying to do an analogical shift in order to explain the recent loosening grip of modernist aesthetic values, it is possible to say that just like the Acheulian hand axes, they too seem to have simply grown outdated and dull on society.

When a certain expression of fitness and superiority, in the form of an artefact or a building, becomes ubiquitous, too commonplace, easy and predictable; an inevitable change breaks forth. Individuals always strive to outperform their opponents; this is the basic rule of survival. It could also be argued that as technology advances, it is transforming previous technical or artistic achievements less impressive, as they become too easy to manufacture and thus a cliché. This cycle of evolution in culture pushes society to seek for its next ornamental style – it’s called fashion.

Modernism as an aesthetic movement failed to grasp the mechanism working behind the aesthetic crisis of its time. The early 20th-century society’s inability to define its own style of decoration, lead them erroneously to assume that
they’ve reached a point in human evolution in which they are no longer chained to their ancestral ornamental urges.

But in fact, the urge was still there, only that in a time where industrial production and cheap labour created an inflation of decorative arts, the single, boldest expression of fitness was, in fact, the lack of decoration accompanied by a transparent manifestation of rational design and advanced technologies, for example, Le Corbusier’s ribbon windows in
his Villa Savoye (1928), which were made possible thanks to advancements in reinforced concrete technology that allowed for the realization of non-bearing walls. In this sense, we can claim that Modernism has eventually found the style of its time; minimalistic, practical ornamentation of its own kind. And just like any other style to be ever invented, it is not here to stay.

“…Of course, as soon as ornament becomes cheap, elite taste moves on. If decoration is suddenly cheap, then the plainer an object, the more valuable it suddenly becomes.”

Heathcote, 2015

An Architectural Prognosis

If the modernist movement never actually abolished the ornament, but instead just radically transformed it, as a part of a Darwinian mechanism of fitness signaling, what could be said about the future of ornament in architecture and

In the decades that followed the supposed end of the modernist movement, we can identify different shifts in the perception of ornament. While some may seem to contradict each other, they are merely an expression of the Darwinian theory, as they constantly try to out-perform their predecessors, as the adequate, most pure expression of cultural superiority. However, in spite of some aesthetical movements trying to bring more traditional styles of decorative ornamentation back to the spotlight, it is apparent that modernist aesthetics still possess the throne.

“But that century-and-a-half of the critique of ornament, that resistance to decoration in design, has become so embedded in our culture that we are now able only to approach the subject through irony or deliberate distance. Whether we think of the appliqué classicism of Postmodernism or the thin veneer of decorative facades engendered by digital production, ornament today is almost inevitably seen at a remove.”

Heathcote, 2015

The brief postmodernist “anything-goes” attitude still didn’t really make us come to terms with explicit ornament. However, it could be argued that some variations on modernist aesthetics have been introduced. Contemporary architects are increasingly experimenting with new forms of ornamentation, often in a limited, reserved way in which the elaborated, explicit ornament is contained within an elevation or a surface, usually superficial, a form of “self-conscious superficiality”.

Often the ornament is a result of the involvement of an artist rather than the architect himself, in order to help “legitimate the act”. Such an example could be observed in the façade of the Eberswalde Technical School Library by Herzog & de Meuron (1999) which displays the works of photographer Thomas Ruff (Heathcote, 2015).

Furthermore, recent movements from the 1980’s and 90’s such as Deconstructivism, which uses the geometry of collage, and Parametricism which exploits the ability of computational design tools to generate ever more articulated and complex forms in the “aesthetics of the computer” seems to push modernist plain geometry into the realm of the fantastic, far from its original idea of transparency (such as seen in the works by the architects Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid). These kind of emerging aesthetics could be easily explained by the Darwinian theory of ornament, as they require the use of complex, cutting-edge technologies of design and manufacturing, and thus, with their complex shapes they stand as markers of progress, superior intelligence and skills.

Eventually, in the stretch of future generations, the ornament to rule will be the one overcoming the “cultural selection”- whatever style that could manifest in the eyes of society the peak of virtuosity. Obviously one should not disregard the question of who is the class of power- the class that will control over the means of cultural production and so gets to determine its preferable manifestation of superiority through ornament; according to their own values. Thus, for instance, in a more conservative, religious or romantic society, architects may look into the traditions of the past as a source of higher morality and elevated consciousness, while in more progressive, secular societies the past might be traded for the quest of new symbols, patterns and values to represent science and technological achievements.

One thing is certain, the cycle of styles will continue and the style which is fittest will prevail; Ornament is alive.

by Ofir Albag


  • Moussavi, F. (2008). The Function of Ornament. Harvard graduate school of design.
  • Loos, A. (1908). Ornament is a crime.
  • Dutton, D. (2002). Aesthetic Universals.
  • Dutton, D. (2010). A Darwinian theory of beauty.
    Heathcote, E. (2015). The problem with ornament. The Architectural Review.
  • Ling, M. (2010). Art and Design Theory. Australian National University.
  • Schumacher, P. (2009). Parametric Patterns. London.
  • Loos, A. (1908). Ornament is a crime.
  • Dutton, D. (2002). Aesthetic Universals.
  • Dutton, D. (2010). A Darwinian theory of beauty.
  • Heathcote, E. (2015). The problem with ornament. The Architectural Review.
  • Ling, M. (2010). Art and Design Theory. Australian National University.
  • Schumacher, P. (2009). Parametric Patterns. London.