Architecture, Ornament and Crime

Architecture,Ornament andCrime? a comparison of the Natural History Museum and the Grand Louvre Joost Oosterwijk & Wouter van den Brand

Transcript of Architecture, Ornament and Crime

Architecture,Ornament andCrime?a comparison of the Natural History Museum and the Grand Louvre

Joost Oosterwijk & Wouter van den Brand

Architecture, Ornaments and Crime?

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are also the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance –John Ruskin.1

Introduction In the early 1900s, the high tide of art nouveau, Adolf Loos stated in his essay ornament and crime: “The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from utilitarian objects”2. Adding ornamentation to buildings for him felt like an immoral thing to do, it was a crime to force craftsmen and builders to waste their precious time on useless objects. Are we, as architects, still moving towards a modern, ornamentless architecture, vers une architecture? Is it true that while our culture evolves, we are losing ornaments?

1. Beeld en Geluidinstituut by Neutelings Riedijk

The answer to this is no, when we look nowadays around us. Gradually more and more architects are using ornament; a good example of this statement is the Beeld en Geluidinstituut by Neutelings Riedijk. But in the beginning of the nineteenth century, there seems to have been a gradual paradigm shift in thought about the ornament after the writings of Adolf Loos. The decorative and narrative ornament, was losing ground, and died out completely during the high tides of modernism, because the great architectural thinkers of those days were, completely in line with the thoughts of Adolf Loos, removing ornaments from architectural designs, to free the public of her individualization. The ornament is something that, in architectural design is seen more often last decade. But is this a revival, did it never leave our profession, or is it only a shift in form of ornament? By comparing two buildings from different times, we try to find out, how and in what form the ornament did survive. The first is the Natural History Museum by Alfred Waterhouse, build in 1881. In this building ornamentation is used in abundance. By studying it we concluded that the ornamentation was used for showing the function and meaning of the building, the ornament has a narrative function.3 But what was the reason for this choice, and how is this expressed in form? The Louvre surrounds the era of the National History Museum. In 1204 Philippe-Auguste founded the Louvre with a castle to defend Paris against the Vikings. In 1535 Pierre

1 Quote from Works, 9. p. 72 used by Aileen Reid in Ruskin and Architecture. P.279 2 From Ornament and Crime, Loos, A. 3 This information was acquired by analysing the building and basic reading.


Lescot designed the still existing part of the palace. From this date on every great French ruler added his wing, until in 1876 it stopped with the design Visconti and Hector Lefuel. The palace was first used as a museum in 1793. Over hundred years later, in 1989, Ieoh Ming Pei continued working on the Louvre under commission of the French president François Mitterrand. Pei is a modernist and his way of designing is as clean as the modernists in the line of Adolf Loos. But we hope to find the presence of ornaments or ornamental qualities to prove our thesis.

2. Ornament design sketch by Waterhouse

Ornaments in the Natural History Museum Richard Owen, the superintendent of the Natural History Departments at the British Museum, persuaded the government in 1856 to build a new museum especially for the Natural History Departments. His vision was to build a Cathedral to nature not only the content, but the whole building had to be related to nature.4 Ornamentation was the tool to reflect the content of the museum. This is the reason why all the statues on the east, geological wing, depict extinct animals and the west, zoological wing, living animals. Ornament was not only used on the exterior, but in every aspect of the building. Columns have patterns similar to those found on fossil trees, vent covers are decorated with dragonflies and beetles, monkeys climb on the arches, etc. Every surface is decorated with birds, animals and fishes. Perhaps the most dramatic ones are the freestanding creatures that look down from the first floor. Not all the ornaments are statues and reliefs, the ceilings are decorated with panels on which plants are painted. Together they form an encyclopedia of plants in an era when specimens of plants from around the world came to Britain, sparking an explosion of interest in botany and horticulture, with new glasshouses and public parks springing up all over the country.5

3. Ornament design sketch by Waterhouse

To be able to see the role of the ornaments in the Natural History Museum, one has to see it in its context and time. The Natural History Museum was designed and built between 1864 and 1881. It originates from the mid-Victorian age, a time where the ‘novelty’ of the buildings was very important. The main interest of architecture by the educated public was not about style and form but of the extent in which the building was conveying its purpose and status.6 The Victorians were looking for architecture with moral and 4. Ornament design sketch by

Waterhouse 4 See webside Natural History Museum, 5 6 The Terracotta Revival, p. 14


practical messages. They judged architecture as a barometer of urban society and most educated people were also trained, by books, journals and classes, to make this judgment. The Mid-Victorian designers found ornament, a good media to give ‘meaning’ to a façade. Though the name of the company on the façade would have been a simple solution, sculptural representations of the activities were thought to be more subtle and artistic. “Narrative decoration was considered particularly desirable on essentially new building types, giving hospitals, public libraries or railway stations a status traditionally regarded suitable for churches, town halls or country houses.”7

5. Ceiling panels of the Natural History Museum

When the Everard Printing Works in Bristol was finished in 1900 by Henry Williams, the police had to control the enormous crowds, who wanted to see the ornaments on the façade for two days. It comes as no surprise that in the time when Richard Owen and Alfred Waterhouse wanted such an extremely, both readable and representing building, would provoke a similar reaction. But the question is; how did Alfred Waterhouse design such a building, beginning with the ornament itself? Alfred Waterhouse himself drew all the ornaments by hand and was regularly checked by Richard Owen on biological and anatomical correctness. All the ornaments were made of terracotta. Waterhouse was the first who used terracotta in such extent for cladding and ornament; this was admired by the architectural press because the production was more industrial than stone carving. Also terracotta was a material that could resist the heavily polluted air of London of 1880 and was resistant to fire, which made it extra useful for the cladding of steel. Furthermore he used the terracotta because it gave him the opportunity to use color and gave him more freedom in the use of ornament. The construction of the building was made of brick and steel. The only construction left in sight is the steel roof construction. The rest, steel columns and brick walls, were clad in terracotta. The construction was not important for him; it was the terracotta that told the story. In our quest to find in what style Waterhouse designed the building we found not one but a combination of styles. The Magazine of Art’s wrote in 1881 shortly after The Natural History Museum was finished: “This building is not a classical one, although is has Classical traditions in its balanced symmetry…Nor is it a Romanesque building, notwithstanding the varying recurrence of the round arch. It is not a Gothic building, though having steep gables and an arrangement of roofing which are eminently Gothic in motif as they are effective and picturesque

7 The Terracotta Revival, p. 14


in outline and grouping. It is, in short, a Victorian building and no other, designed upon principles which have informed the great works of all time, but adapted to the wants, using the materials and employing the methods of the age in which we live.”8

This mixture was unusual for Waterhouse, who was a strong supporter of the Gothic Revival, but he might have been very much influenced by the existing plan of Fowke. Captain Francis Fowke had won the competition for the building originally, and designed a museum, in a more or less renaissance style. This style was traditionally used for museums in that time, for example The British Museum by Smirke. But Fowke suddenly deceased and Alfred Waterhouse was asked to finish the designs of the building. The main principles of the ground plan remained but Waterhouse used the gothic style to be able to integrate the ornamentation in the design. Gothic made in his view a better and coherent framework for the extensive use of ornamentation. Waterhouse was in this being influenced by writers like Pugin and especially Ruskin. Ruskin was one of the most influential writers of Victorian architecture in that time. Not only of what he said but also because his writings were not only directed to the critics and collectors, but also for laymen like for instance; his parents, visitors to galleries and exhibitions, “the first generation of a new middle class, uncertain how to judge and to value art, eager for an education of the eye in a visual a visual aesthetic for there times.”9 It was not only the broad public he chose but also the way of writing, drawing and speaking, very persuasive, as if he was on a mission. Around 1850, there was no shortage of architectural publications, and all these publications were full of drawings. The drawings were often diagrammatic elevations, lacking any representation of modeling or finish. Ruskin used a drawing style not only showing the surface and finish but also other expressive qualities conveyed by design and form. These drawings were by his Victorian audience looked upon as a great innovation and improvement.

6. Ornaments drawn by Ruskin

It is not surprising at all, that traces of Ruskin work are visible in Alfred Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum. At the age of twenty-three Waterhouse traveled through Europe with his old study friend Thomas Hodgkin, who wrote down; “He (Alfred Waterhouse) was entirely under the influence of Ruskin and communicated his own passionate admiration for Gothic art and a perfect detestation of that beastly Renaissance”10. During his travels he visited 8 Magazine of Art, 4 (1881), 36, quoted in Alfred Waterhous by Cunningham, C. 9 Ruskin and Architecture p. 30 by Chitty, G. 10 Unpublished autobiographical memoir by Tomas Hodgkin, quoted in Alfred Waterhouse 1830 – 1905. p.13


as many buildings described by Ruskin as possible. Three years later he made a necessary pilgrimage to the new museum at Oxford. The architects Deane and Woodward had good contact with Ruskin and the building was, after the pleas of Ruskin, build in a Gothic style.11 It was partly because of Ruskin’s ideas that people designed and accepted the use of ornaments to such an extent. Ruskin wrote about ornament in the introduction of The Stones of Venice, one of his famous architectural publications: “Little by little, it gradually became manifest to me that the sculpture and painting were, in fact, the all in all of the thing to be done; that these, which I had long been in the careless habit of thinking subordinate to the architecture, were in fact the entire masters of the architecture; and the architect who was not a sculptor or a painter, was nothing better than a frame-maker on a large scale… The fact is that there are only two fine arts possible to the human race, sculpture and painting. What we call architecture is only the association of these in noble masses, or the placing of them in fit places. All architecture other than this is, in fact, mere building.”12

7. Ornament drawn by Ruskin

This can be seen in the Natural History Museum, the building is a framework and it is the sculptures and paintings that made it the well remembered building it is.

11 Alfred Waterhouse 1830 – 1905 p.17 12Works, 8, p10-11, quoted in Ruskin and Architecture p.323


Le Grand Louvre et les Ornament Even though there might have been already something sixth or seventh century in the area called the Louvre, may it be a hunting lodge or a small castle, builders under command of Philippe-Auguste started with the fundaments of the Old Louvre, a fortified tower, in 1204. Accept for a huge and brilliant weathercock, no ornaments were to be found in this building. An enormous west wing and immense hall were added by his grandson, and for almost hundred and fifty years the Louvre was left in that condition. Charles V found his palace too much reminiscent of the Bastille, and decided that the tower needed a serious upgrade. The walls were, the tower increased, the exterior made more graceful in line and form, the towers given various shapes, and ll kinds of sculptured figures put over the different stones, the whole enclosed within the city walls and beautiful gardens laid out around the palace. All these changes were designed by head architect Raymond du Temple. After the death of Charles V, in 1380, the Louvre was left to the hands of time again for another hundred years. François I, started with the demolition of the great tower, with the thought in mind of creating a representational palace, but he had too many wars, oppression and intrigues on hand. So after a couple of years the work ceased, and the Louvre was once more left to decay. In 1540, work was commenced under command of Pierre Lescot. The fundaments were so solid that Pierre Lescot decided to use them for the new constructions. The fundaments are the only part remaining of the original building, nowadays. In 1561 the new west wing was finished and decorated with sculptures by Paolo Ponzio and Jean Goujon. All work was stopped again after the death of Henri II, Catherine de’ Medici wanted the Louvre to be habitable. Work on the building was stopped, the sculptures left unfinished, and all activity was concentrated upon the preparations for habitation. The complex looked very strange because of the different architectural influences. In 1610 Lemercier continued the work of Pierre Lescot, he added extensions and destroyed the old circular stairway. In 1665 Louis XIV laid the first stone for the façade renovation, the work was finished in 1670. Fifteen years later, in 1680, Louis was more interested in Versailles. And when Perrault died in 1688, the palace was once again abandoned. In 1854 the design of Visconti was carried out and the Louvre was connected to the Tuileries in the North. During this restoration a great deal of the old buildings were destroyed. In general, the whole addition has, as has often been noted; “an appearance of theatrical decoration without accent or depth, a luxury without reason, a lack of harmony, and a manifest disproportion between the framework and the ornamentation.”

8. Model of old Louvre


”Ornament is the figure that emerges from the material substrate, the expression of embedded forces through processes of construction, assembly and growth. It is through the ornament that material transmits affects. Ornament is therefore necessary and inseparable from the object. It is not a mask determined a priori to contingent or involuntary signification (a characteristic of al forms). It has no intention to decorate, and there is in it no hidden meaning. At the best of times ornament becomes an “empty sign” capable of generating an unlimited number of resonances.”13

Ieoh Ming Pei is very much fascinated by geometric shapes, to such an extent that the geometric shapes start to acquire an ornamental quality. From his early projects on; like the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder to his latest designs, show the same strictness in using the simple shapes. His architectural language consists of cylinders, cubes, and pyramids, which he manages to form into harmonious compositions. The architectural objects in itself can therefore be seen as ornaments in the architectural - or urban context. Looking to the design of Ieoh Ming Pei in this more urban perspective, first of all one notices the interesting reference to the formal French gardens. Again Ieoh Ming Pei shows his fascination for geometric patterns, in his almost picturesque translation of the old Renaissance French garden. The triangular ponds, filled with water, connected by paths in between, share the same serene beauty that can be found in the garden of Versailles. Secondly, when understanding the Avenue des Champs-Élysées as an interior in the urban tissue of Paris, it is easy to see the addition of the pyramids as a new urban ornament, in the already existing chain of urban ornaments. “Against the symbolic interpretation of culture by Postmodernism, the dynamic nature of culture requires that buildings each time define their own ground and develop and internal consistency. It is precisely through these internal orders that architecture gains an ability to perform relative to culture and to build its own system of evaluation. These orders are therefore not about pure architectural expression, removed from culture of the kind that was dismissed by postmodernism. They are not about being pure, but about being consistent. They do not aim at being disconnected but rather contaminated with culture.”14

Looking at the interiors by Adolf Loos one would not believe that he is the same architect that wrote “Ornament and Crime”, stating that using the precious time of labor for ornaments and useless decoration, was close to a criminal act. The elaborate use of materials and the fine detailing of all the objects in the interiors, are just as time consuming, and require the same amount of handicraft, 13 From The Function of Ornament by Moussavi, F p.8 14 From The Function of Ornament by Moussavi, F p.8


as the creation of ornaments. The natural decorative qualities of the materials where cleverly used to enhance the already sophisticated and beautifully connected interior spaces in Adolf Loos’s designs. The same could be said about the interior of the Nouveau Louvre: Ieoh Ming Pei uses marble, beton architectonique and other very expensive and labor intensive process to create a very clean interior space. The glass pyramids, the large centered pyramid in particular, with its 603 diamond-shaped and 70 triangular glass panels of 21 millimeter on a hand-casted stainless steel construction, are very precisely detailed, and took a lot of effort and craftsmanship by Eiffel Construction Metallique and RFR Ingénieurs. The fine detailing gives the whole structure a very elegant and transparent appearance, a decorative quality on the central square. The interior spaces of the Nouveau Louvre share the same elegance as the pyramids outside. It could be said, that there is an ornamental quality to be found in the details. One should be able to see, this less-is-more way of thinking and the fetishizing of the smooth and uniform detail, as a form of ornamentation. References to historical architecture and technology in the final design and the materiality of the design, become the ornament. As Venturi notes in his book “Learning from Las Vegas”: “Modern ornament has seldom been symbolic of anything non architectural, since the Bauhaus vanquished Art Deco and the decorative arts. More specifically its content is consistently spatial and technological.”15 The case of the double-dealing-duck and the-insincere-decorated shed. The pyramid says: “Hey look at me, I am a pyramid, but means I am an entrance to the Louvre.” The museum on the other hand screams: “I am a palace.” Both of the buildings share the same ambiguity, translated in different ways. The most interesting part of this case is that the pyramid, due to the great marketing and commercial success of the Louvre, has become an entrance for a museum of which most people have forgotten its history as a palace. The ornaments or ornamental qualities in both of the buildings add to this ambiguous problem. Summarizing the last paragraphs, one could say, that there actually are many ornamental qualities to this building. But most of them are working on a different level; it is more the emotional variant of the ornament that can be found. References to French gardens, Egyptian pyramids could and should be seen as decorative elements in this plan, but on the ornamental level they are more, they have acquired

9. The new intuitive meaning of the pyramid, as an entrance for art museums

15 Learning from Las Vegas Venturi, p.114


an aura, a deeper meaning. This emotional level is also reached by the detailing in both the interior and the exterior. The exquisite detailing and intelligent use of materials creates such a clean atmosphere that it is impossible not to be astonished. Also can the project as a whole be seen as an urban ornament; adding pyramid shaped glass beads to the already existing building chain, linked by the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Conclusion: We see that ornamentation was not simply a useless adding to a building, only existing because of tradition. It has had and still has a function. In the case of the Natural History Museum it is clearly to see that, in line with the Victorian thought, ornament was used to show the content of the museum, or even that the building is part of the content, it shows and educates. By the influential writings of Adolf Loos this narrative form of ornament disappeared. But ornament is more. Farshid Moussavi writes in Function of Ornament that ornament works two ways, one is Décor and communication. This is the novelty of ornament so clearly visible in The Natural history museum. The second is Effect and Sensation.16 This has more to do with the psychology of architecture the theory of how we experience architecture. Patrick Healy states in his essay Ornament Now: “For the body to recognize forms it posits that things are animate in expression, a process which gives to architecture a double problematic, as it belongs to what Freud calls ‘das Unheimliche’, itself rooted in a homology of repetition and an abstraction of the sensible towards the suprasensible”17. He uses the example of the change of heartbeat when entering different spaces. Moussavi states: “It is through ornament that material transmits effects”18. He sees ornament as a tool which helps to express the material and the architecture. This is a very different way of looking on ornament than that Adolf Loos did. Loos critics were directed to how ornament influenced society, but ornament does that because it is narrative, symbolic. Ornamentation in the form of Effect and Sensation does not work that way and is more directly related to the building and its beauty. We can also see that the expensive use of materials in the interiors of Loos his buildings is ornamentation in this form. One of the famous architects who was aware of this aspect of ornament is Louis Sullivan. His ornamentation is organic and exists of leaf and flower

10. Interior Designed by Adolf Loos

16 The Function of Ornament, Moussavi, F. p.6-7 17 Oase 65 Ornament, Healy, P. p.55 18 The Function of Ornament, Moussavi, F. p.6-7


like figures, but are not plane representations. His ornamentation works on a different level, it works as an effect to experience his buildings in a more organic way. Pei does not use narrative or organic ornament, but he is looking in his oeuvre for a way of expression that makes the experience of his buildings unique. He finds this in the use of geometrical forms and patterns. These geometrical forms can be seen as ornaments in a sense that it channels the effects he wants and that they are not formed because of functionality. The glass pyramid of the Grand Louvre is for example an ornamental object. The form is not functional and it is not that he only made it of glass to make it as invisible as possible, because why did he not put every thing underground. No, he wanted to put there an ornament which expresses his mostly underground addition to the Louvre. So this less tangible, but deeper and more emotional, but less or not all narrative form, of ornamentation survived during these dark ages for the ornament. But how did this narrative form of ornament return? Many architects interpreted the writing by Robert Venturi and Desise Scott Brown in the late sixties and seventies, as permit to move away from Modernism’s functionalism and to resume designing in a more narrative way. Instead of Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more”, Robert Venturi stated “Less is a bore”. He explains this statement, in his critique of Modernism and manifestos for Postmodernism, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. We argue that the ornament in one way of another survived during Modernism. The writings of Robert Venturi in combination with the individualization of our contemporary society caused another gradual shift, this time in favor of the ornament. l’Ornament est mort? Vive l’ornament!



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