Wednesday, February 22, 2006

On Ornament

In a typical over-hurried fashion, Architecture Magazine ran an interesting story this month on the proliferation of active skins for new buildings. Quickly citing buildings on three continents and delivering catch-phrases and street credibility from the thinkers of the last thirty years, the article proves only to be a good place to start if readers want to examine the issues that animated skins provide Architecture. The high-points from C.C. Sullivan's article include...
"With the highest-tech or more mundane means, a few architects are synthesizing edifice and communication in startling ways. Marshall McLuhan anticipated this development long ago, well before he died in 1980. So if the medium is the building—what's the message?

One answer is that architecture for our time cannot afford to be static. Another is that ornament has once again escaped the architect's clutch. On the former point, consider the robotic envelopes on the lab bench at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and under production in Europe, energy-saving arrays that stir collectively as do fields of sunflowers and, like frog skin, respond instantly to changing cloud cover and ambient humidity. Regarding the latter, who expected that Blackberry-wielders would one day play Pong, the antediluvian bar game, on the face of the French National Library? [...]

Of course, less pecuniary interests have converged on the active façade, too, including influential thinkers. Toyo Ito, who calls architecture "media-clothing," led the way in 1986 with his seminal Tower of the Winds in Yokohama, Japan. Today, the avant-garde probes the outer limits while the old guard eggs them on, like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown trumpeting "Viva electronic pixels over decorative rivets!"
Mr. Sullivan's in a rush to get a lot in a few words. However that glance at the issue of ornament is worth thinking about. Continuing on a recent Ruskin post, let us read into the Seven Lamps of Architecture for clues regaurding the victorian's disposition towards the skins of tomorrow... [From Ruskin's Lamp of Truth]
"Ornament, as I have often before observed, has two entirely distinct sources of agreeableness: one, that of the abstract beauty of its forms, which, for the present we will supposed to be the same whether they come from the hand or the machine; the other the sense of human labour and care spent upon it. How great this latter influence we may perhaps judge, by considering that there is not a cluster of weeds growing in any of ruin which has not a beauty in a; respects nearly equal, and, in some, immeasurably superior to that of the most elaborate sculpture of its stones: and that all our interest in the carved work, our sense of it's richness, though it is tenfold less rich than the knots of grass beside it; of its delicacy, though it is a thousandfold less delicate; of its admirableness, though a millionfold less admirable; results from a consciousness of its being the work of the poor, clumsy, toilsome man. Its true delightfulness depends on your discovering in the record of thoughts, and intents, and trails, and heartbreaking -- of recoveries and joyfulness of its success: all this can be traced by a practiced eye; but,, granting it even obscure, it is presumed or understood; and in that is the worth of the thing, just as much as the worth of anything else we call precious. The worth of a diamond is simply the understanding of the time it must take to look for it before it is found; and the worth of an ornament is the time it must take before it can be cut. It has an intrinsic value besides, which the diamond has not; (for a diamond has no more real beauty that a piece of glass;) but I do not speak of that at present; I place the two on the same ground; and I suppose that the hand-wrought ornament can no more be known from machine work , than a Diamond be known from paste; nay the latter may deceive, for a moment the mason's, as the other the jewelers, eye: and that it can be detected only by the closest examination. Yet exactly as the woman of feeling would never wear false jewels, so would be a builder of honour distain false ornaments. The use of them is just as downright and inexcusable a lie. You use that which pretends to a worth which it has not; it is an imposition, a vulgarity, an impertinence, and a sin. Down with it down to the ground, grind it to powder, leave its ragged place upon the wall, rather; you have not paid for it, you have no business with it, you do not want it. Nobody wants ornaments in this world, but everybody wants integrity. All the fair devices that ever were fancied are not worth a lie. Leave your walls as bare as a planed board, or build them of baked mud and chopped straw, if need be; but do not rough-cast them with falsehood."

C.C.Sullivan's article was quick to lump in these active skins with a larger architectural tradition of ornament. Is it? If the color of the building is a functional requirement of the program of the building (as in Herzog & de Muron's Stadium), is this more than ornament? What would it take to create a new genre of building component to satisfy the in-between?


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