Ornament and Crime

September 2014

Returning from a short stay in Vienna, where there is tons of it — Gothic, baroque, Hapsburg imperial — I have been thinking about my attitude to architecture. At the city’s centre in Michaelerplatz is the so-called Looshaus, a plain, modern office block, built in 1911; rumour has it that Emperor Franz Joseph closed the blinds of that part of his enormous palace that looked over the square, so as to avoid seeing what he regarded as an atrocity; and never thereafter used that exit from the Hofburg.

    The architect of this controversial building (not in fact devoid of ornament) was Adolf Loos, who at the same time was putting together theories that emerged in his manifesto called Ornament and Crime. This work influenced various movements that preceded the modernist phase in architecture, notably the Bauhaus.

    My first remembered encounter with twentieth-century architecture was walking into the glass door of a restaurant at the Festival of Britain (was this the first such door in the land?).  No doubt the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery also had the impact of novelty on my imagination, but repeated visits to the Festival Hall later probably confirmed the style that I now know as International Modernism as my model for all architecture: buildings should be functional, with their modes of construction on display. I suspect I was a typical Young Elizabethan in my tastes.

    Later I was disillusioned to learn that the wood-grain patterns in the concrete walls of South Bank buildings of the 50s did not result from their process of manufacture, but are a decorative element created at great expense, harking back to earlier methods of construction (a ‘skeuomorph’). Somehow I had absorbed the puritanical notion put forward by Loos that ornament in architecture is intrinsically wicked. Severely modernist buildings like the skyscrapers of Mies van der Rohe, which perhaps I tried to admire without liking much, no doubt confirmed my unwitting prejudices, as did countless other modern constructions of less distinction.

    Now I know (thanks to Learn Italy lectures) that nearly all architectural features — pilasters, entablatures, scrolls, pediments, and so on — are decorative. The triglyphs — those triple-grooved panels on the friezes of Greek temples, are skeuomorphs too, referring back to earlier wooden structures. There can be scarcely a town in Britain that doesn’t have a nineteenth-century bank or civic building that alludes to Greek and Roman architecture, with columns and capitals and all the paraphernalia that goes with them, triglyphs often included, none of which are likely to be functional, being ornamental elements dignifying a large box (which is what most buildings are).

    So now I can look at so-called ‘Classical’ buildings and enjoy their proportions and patterns of straight lines and curves without disturbance even though I know they serve no function. But I still have to suppress a frisson of alarm when confronted with the gaudy exuberance of baroque ornament, whether outside or inside a building; quite illogically I feel it is ‘merely decorative’ and therefore disgusting and unworthy of attention. This doesn’t make sense.

    In Vienna there are several buildings by the eco-artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  He hated the sterile monotony of Loos-inspired office blocks, factories and flats. In his love for biomorphic and irregular forms and desire to incorporate features of the natural landscape into his buildings (especially the ‘tree-tenants’ which he believed everyone should house) he professed a great dislike for straight lines (the ‘devil’s tools’). In his apartment block, the Hundertwasserhaus, the floors gently undulate as if concealing large molehills (‘an uneven floor is a melody for the feet’), where columns and walls are covered with bright ceramics, every window has a different coloured surround, and greenery sprouts from every balcony and cascades from the roof. I note, however, that the walls of his houses are vertical, and his paintings and designs for postage stamps and flags are all severely rectangular. His is a joyful ornamental modernism, still playing off the straight line against his curvaceous structures.

    This rumination was supposed to be an exhortation to enjoy Italian baroque architecture, but the message was waylaid by my stay in Vienna.