In a 1941 essay, the architectural historian Sir John Summerson called it "surface modulation". Decoration and ornament has been evident in civilizations since the beginning of recorded history, ranging from Ancient Egyptian architecture to the apparent lack of ornament of 20th century Modernist architecture.
Ancient Greek civilization created many new forms of ornament, with regional variations from Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian groups. The Romans Latinized the pure forms of the Greek ornament and adapted the forms to every purpose.
Other ornamental styles are associated with these cultures:
From the 15th to the 19th century, "Pattern books" were published in Europe which gave access to decorative elements recorded from cultures all over the world. Napoleon documented the great pyramids and temples of Egypt in the Description de l'Egypte (1809). Owen Jones published The Grammar of Ornament in 1856 with colored illustrations of decoration from Egypt, Turkey, Sicily and Spain. He took residence in the Alhambra Palace to make drawings and plaster castings of the ornate details. Interest in classical architecture was also fueled by the tradition of traveling on The Grand Tour, and translation of early literature about architecture in the work of Vitruvius and Michaelangelo.
During the 19th century, the acceptable use of ornament, and its precise definition became the source of aesthetic controversy in academic Western architecture, as architects and their critics searched for a suitable style. "The great question is," Thomas Leverton Donaldson asked in 1847, "are we to have an architecture of our period, a distinct, individual, palpable style of the 19th century?" . In 1849, when Matthew Digby Wyatt viewed the French Industrial Exposition set up on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, he disapproved in recognizably modern terms of the plaster ornaments in faux-bronze and faux woodgrain:
Both internally and externally there is a good deal of tasteless and unprofitable ornament... If each simple material had been allowed to tell its own tale, and the lines of the construction so arranged as to conduce to a sentiment of grandeur, the qualities of "power" and "truth," which its enormous extent must have necessarily ensured, could have scarcely fail to excite admiration, and that at a very considerable saving of expense.Contacts with other cultures through colonialism and the new discoveries of archaeology expanded the repertory of ornament available to revivalists. After about 1880, photography made details of ornament even more widely available than prints had done.
A more radical route abandoned the use of ornament altogether, as in some designs for objects by Christopher Dresser. At the time, such unornamented objects could have been found in many unpretending workaday items of industrial design, ceramics produced at the Arabia manufactory in Finland, for instance, or the glass insulators of electric lines.
This latter approach was described by architect Adolf Loos in his 1908 manifesto, translated into English in 1913 and polemically titled Ornament and Crime, in which he declared that lack of decoration is the sign of an advanced society. His argument was that ornament is economically inefficient and "morally degenerate", and that reducing ornament was a sign of progress. Modernists were eager to point to American architect Louis Sullivan as their godfather in the cause of aesthetic simplification, dismissing the knots of intricately patterned ornament that articulated the skin of his structures.
With the work of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus through the 1920s and 1930s, lack of decorative detail became a hallmark of modern architecture and equated with the moral virtues of honesty, simplicity, and purity. In 1932 Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock dubbed this the "International Style". What began as a matter of taste was transformed into an aesthetic mandate. Modernists declared their way as the only acceptable way to build. As the style hit its stride in the highly-developed postwar work of Mies van der Rohe, the tenets of 1950s modernism became so strict that even accomplished architects like Edward Durrell Stone and Eero Saarinen could be ridiculed and effectively ostracized for departing from the aesthetic rules.
At the same time, the unwritten laws against ornament began to come into serious question. "Architecture has, with some difficulty, liberated itself from ornament, but it has not liberated itself from the fear of ornament," Summerson observed in 1941.
One reason was that the very difference between ornament and structure is subtle and perhaps arbitrary. The pointed arches and flying buttresses of Gothic architecture are ornamental but structurally necessary; the colorful rhythmic bands of a Pietro Belluschi International Style skyscraper are integral, not applied, but certainly have ornamental effect. Furthermore, architectural ornament can serve the practical purpose of establishing scale, signaling entries, and aiding wayfinding, and these useful design tactics had been outlawed. And by the mid-1950s, modernist figureheads Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer had been breaking their own rules by producing highly expressive, sculptural concrete work.
The argument against ornament peaked in 1959 over discussions of the Seagram Building, where Mies van der Rohe installed a series of structurally unnecessary vertical I-beams on the outside of the building, and by 1984, when Philip Johnson produced his AT&T Building in Manhattan with an ornamental pink granite neo-Georgian pediment, the argument was effectively over. In retrospect, critics have seen the AT&T Building as the first Postmodernist building.
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