On the Loss of Architectural Ornamentation
April 4th, 2006
Go to New York.
No. Do not stop looking up.
Take the time to gaze at the detail, the expense, and the concrete evidence of a building as art yet connected to both the age that built it, and those ages that came before.
Look at the relationships established by something as simple as a window casement in the Empire State building: the shape of the window, its outline nearing the proportions of the Golden Mean. And there are thousand of those windows.
Stand two blocks from the Chrysler building and find yourself exhausted trying to accommodate one tenth of the detail. In stainless steel, terra cotta, bronze the visual impact is amazing.
In the Kuching of the Brookes there is evidence of the Empire. In all the grand colonialism, for better or worse, there is decoration that tries to incite the viewer’s interest in the buildings they face. The Main Post Office with its grand columns, or the Courthouse there is an intent to draw the pedestrian in to the persona of the building itself. In the Muslim mosque, the Sikh temple, or the Christian church the builder’s goal again was to involve the viewer.
Vancouver, on Canada’s wet West Coast, we too have our reminders of Empire, and our reminders of civilizations earlier, and every bit as self-referential as our own. We remembered.
But we have begun to forget.
And soon we will be unable to remember what we have forgotten.
We will forget that buildings are more than the sum of the bricks, mortar, steel, and glass from which they are built. We will forget that we once thought that men could build this edifice, and we marveled at the thought.
And we will forget that our buildings once attempted to connect us in a broad social project. The architect, the builder, the customer, and the public once expected these things. And we have forgotten that expectation.
I don’t want to blame Modernism (that ‘ism’ with the capital ‘M’) because I feel the issue is far greater than what can be laid on the alter of an ill-defined ideological mess, one most fondly nurtured by academicians, and mostly ignored by the very people living ‘through’ the project of modernity.
So, who, or what, is to blame for the loss of architectural ornamentation that is evidenced in modern (note the small ‘m’) buildings?
It could be the stunning visual simplicity of the Seagram’s building in New York is as sure an antidote to over-ornamentation as one could hope to find.
It could be the sheer cost of detailed ornamentation that is made to last. Every cornice, every ornamental column, every idolatrous image took time, money, ability to design, manufacture, and mount.
It could be the loss of our own connection with our multiple pasts. To pick solely on the British colonial project (as if it were a singular, monolithic, homogeneous entity without internal contradictions) look at the spread of Imperial courthouses throughout the former Empire, and indeed the maintenance of same in so many, now, Commonwealth member-states.
A local, and oddly telling decoration, is on the entrance to the original, Main Library, at the University of British Columbia. In granite, a material much used locally, are figures representative of the Scopes Monkey Trial in the United States arguably about the teaching of evolution, but equally arguable is the position on the place of rational thought ironically a powerful argument against the existence of the decoration itself.
In societies where numerous peoples are expected to live in harmony and respect regardless of their heritage, perhaps there is no place for that architectural ornamentation. Perhaps, if we honour one tradition on a building, we sleight all others. Or perhaps we are too bloody self-centered to look at the very next building, one with ornamentation that exalts a different, and perhaps contradictory, past.
In any case I think we are too poor, or too cheap, to afford that ornamentation.
We are too poor, not in the monetary sense, but because we lack not only the value of the connections to our own pasts, but we lack the connections to the pasts of others. An example may be in order.
My past, my background if you will, is nominally Anglo-Canadian, though there is some limited evidence of interesting variations from the postage stamp province, Manitoba. This past, nominally monolithic, is supposedly Christian. But I am too poor to appreciate the intricacies of art in Islam. I have no idea who the multiple deities are, represented in Hindu (again, as though Hindu was a monolithic, homogeneous entity), there are no referents that I can grasp to fully appreciate the symbolism in traditional Chinese arts so the Tua Pek Kong temple in Kuching are beyond my ken. In that sense I am poor, I do not know enough.
We are, or at least may be, to cheap to afford that ornamentation. And this is subtly different from being too poor.
Being to cheap means that we are unwilling to invest the energy, time, money to learn enough about peoples multiple pasts to make sense of their ornamentation, and their cultures. And if cheap is the right word here, we are all too cheap. This thrift is not limited to one culture, one faith, one time, or one place.
Maybe the banality of undecorated modern architecture is what we deserve, as a global society, for being too poor or too cheap, to learn about the multiple, interwoven, pasts of others. And the even more complex pasts we could then claim for ourselves.
This is written without reference to notes of any form. There are no pictures at hand, in black and white, or colour, to refresh the writers memory. There is no one to comment on, or advise during the writing (in under an hour) of this missive. With these caveats in mind, I am particularly open to comments or suggestions from readers.