Alan Powers

Importance of ornament

Importance of ornament

The Modern Movement in architecture had scarcely succeeded in abolishing ornament before people began to speculate about how and when it would return. In Britain, the historian Sir John Summerson, as a young journalist, found it hard to believe that architecture would be able to communicate without it beyond the initial period of purification which he and many others believed was a necessary transitional phase. In 1935, the Peter Jones store was fitted with outward-opening bronze casements in its ‘curtain wall’ with only sections of blank wall behind them, and the architects suggested that not only could the walls be repainted periodically in different colours, but also that patterned wallpaper could be used to dress up the building (it never happened, but it is not too late to try). Osbert Lancaster, more predictably, broadcast in 1951 to celebrate the death of modern architecture and the recovery of ornament in the Festival of Britain, and was denounced by the Architects’ Journal for this heresy. It seems he was far too far ahead of the slow-moving guardians of architectural righteousness.

It remains a paradox that a movement which allowed architects the freedom to do whatever they wanted put so many exclusions in the small print, ornament among them. If Post-Modernism in the 1970s looked as if it had torn up this contract, the shallowness of the messages associated with the movement was matched only by the poor quality of construction through which such messages were communicated.

The London architectural practice of Caruso St John, the subject of an exhibition at the Architectural Association (until 3 November), recently began a return to ornament that differs from the toy-brick simplifications of Post-Modernism. The results will be seen more in future projects than in anything so far visible, but it is potentially an exciting move from the heart of the compound of intellectual architecture.

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