The return of ornamentation in architecture: for what purpose? To express what?

 

The return of ornamentation in architecture: for what purpose? To express what?

Wariness regarding ornaments began at the start of the 20th century.

 

Wariness regarding ornaments began at the start of the 20th century. In his articles, including the famous “Ornaments and Crime” published in 1908, Austrian architect Adolf Loos was the first to introduce this form of radicalism in opposition to the Eclectic and Art Nouveau styles. Loos clearly influenced the Bauhaus and is thus considered as one of the great precursors of modern architecture. Le Corbusier published Loos’s texts in his Esprit Nouveau journal and applied the famous principles of the simple, pared-down style to the letter in all his work (the majority of which in France has just been classified).

Contemporary ornaments are becoming a general feature of envelopes

During the last three decades, ornaments have made a spectacular come back on the front of the architectural stage. Often related to the use of computers for project design, contemporary architectural ornaments differ from traditional ornaments in several regards. Rather than appearing as an element added in certain well defined places of a design, they are above all a general feature of the building envelope. Their symbolic dimension is revealed by this barely discernible fact, whereas the symbolic character of ornaments was once one of the basic principles and often even the justification of architectural decors.

Rebirth or inevitable mutation?

These differences prompt us to ask questions on what exactly has come back: are we experiencing a rebirth of ornamentation or an inevitable mutation? Whether it was the architect or the craftsman who designed it, the sculptor who made it or the client it was made for, the ornament pointed to the existence of various subjects involved in the production, the reception and the use of architecture.

These differences prompt us to ask questions on what exactly has come back: are we experiencing a rebirth of ornamentation or an inevitable mutation? Whether it was the architect or the craftsman who designed it, the sculptor who made it or the client it was made for, the ornament pointed to the existence of various subjects involved in the production, the reception and the use of architecture.

Useful ornaments

Trained by architects of the modern period, I have always had a penchant for justification of decor.

With zinc, I was struck by the way water runoff is treated on roofs and facades. The common denominator of our products resides mainly in the fact that they prevent rainwater from entering the building or they remove it from facades.

What is generally termed “sheet metal work” covers the treatment of all singular points on roofs and facades. Coursing strips, moulded dormer window edges, curb members to separate pitched terraces from lower slopes, cornices and window sills, astragal strips and gutter parts all “block the downward flow of drops of water with a bend, a fold or a bead, and make them fall rather than infiltrating.

These technical details are highly encoded in their dimensions (overlaps, fixing, rings….) and become alibis of decoration or simply useful ornaments

In this regard, what I would call “a treaty on drops of water” remains to be written, to teach architects how to “design” the sheet metal work details necessary to avoid inelegant stains.

Nowadays, functional logic obliges architects to succeed in the synthesis between their determination to reach guaranteed levels of performance and the objective of elegantly integrating the building in its environment. The example of glazed facades and their extraordinary evolution over the last thirty years shows that this synthesis has almost been achieved. The glued glass-mirror facades of the 1980s with their inevitable stains and predictable pathologies are gladly a thing of the past! Modern facades however are far more interesting in terms of ornamentation. The obligation to manage heat and light gains has led to the use of sophisticated ploys often borrowed from nature. Whether they are positioned horizontally between two floors (the most frequent case), vertically as open shutters or fixed as perforated/openwork double-skin panels on the front of glazed surfaces, sun-screens have become alibis for decorating facades and allowing them breathe (photos E). These wall-mounted elements have become the new subjects of modern international ornamentation.

Modern signs and signage

Although the classical Doric or Corinthian styles and their antique details enjoyed a long life in decoration, the current period has forgotten them (except sometimes to mock them – see post-modern architecture) and has developed its own signs, some of which are related to the notoriety of global companies

Brands and logos are thus elevated to the rank of universal symbols that feature on the facades of sales outlets (e.g. the stylised apple of Apple stores). Other signs relate to new technologies and the need to communicate using images and light directly on buildings. Since André Citroën, “advertising” has been installed all over city centres (Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, Shibuya,….) and neons – and more recently leds – made it possible to develop commercial signage initially and, increasingly, a new form of ornamentation that often modifies the perception of the building from day to night time .

Modern metal ornamentation is still finding itself!

VMZINC has been historically connected to metal ornamentation since the 19th century. The skills acquired are used almost exclusively for renovating old ornaments that are replicated. And when we produce dormer windows or curb members for new buildings, especially in emerging markets, we observe that the vocabulary of mansard roofs or the castles of the Loire valley are reproduced in a pastiche style! Or even in the style of Victorian architecture

Why are we nostalgic? How can we motivate architects to reinterpret metal ornamentation? How can we re-read and modernise useful flashings in roofs and facades?

Architects can procure new design and production tools (3D sheet metal software, scanner for measuring old ornaments/laser cutting machines, especially for made-to-order perforations that make it possible to reproduce photographic images/panel composers to produce cassettes in all formats and depths/numerous customised surface treatments, …) from industrials such as VMZINC. This is metal ornamentation 4.0! See attached photos of recent buildings enabling us to believe in this rebirth

Please do not hesitate to post a reply so we can discuss this topic at the heart of the architectural profession.

  Chronique de Roger Baltus