Sign – Image – Facade
Ornament in Contemporary Architecture
Lecture: 29 October 2009
Celebrated and condemned in turns, trendsetting and bound to tradition at the same time, ornament is a
fundamental phenomena of modern architectural practice and theory. The subject was reactivated in the 1990s
when the digital turn - or the establishing of computer-based drafting and production processes
in architecture - triggered renewed interest in ornament, first and foremost as it
applied to the "face" of a building. At the same time, ornament can be tied
into to broader cultural-historical contexts. It can be seen as a mirror of the
close correlation and interdependencies between art, culture and architecture history.
Using three current buildings as examples, the lecture will draw three aspects of ornament’s
significance in contemporary architecture to the fore: First, ornamental drafting methods are
often closely tied to artistic processes, with architects co-operating with artists or
employing their strategies. The spectrum of influences spans from abstract colour painting
and conceptual art to arte povera, pop art and contemporary digital art, which used in the
making of media facades.
Second, ornamental buildings can create or more firmly establish a place-specific
identity through a return to traditional forms and motifs associated with the region,
and by modifying these in line with current technology. Third, in the course of digitalisation,
technical-constructive, material and pictorial-ornamental aspects have visibly merged to
form a new, single entity, voiding the oft-cited dichotomy in ornamental discourse between
necessary construct and functionless décor.
Thus the ornamental facade has developed from
one of most superficial, added-on layers or uninformative surface to an integral
component in the total construction. In serving a dual function as both a regulative
and decorative element, architectural ornament is not only an expression of a fascination
with perception but rather, at most, it is also an expression in its own right: it can be
characterised as sign, visual code and image at the same time.