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SAMPLE CHAPTER

Ornament and Communication

by
Brent C. Brolin
Text and photographs ©

I’d like to clarify a potential misconception:
"Artistic" self-expression does not equal communication .
Most times it doesn’t even come close. Decades ago an art history professor suggested the following approach to me when confronting a work of contemporary art: “Try to understand what the artist is trying to say.” It wasn’t long before that advice began to sound more like obfuscation than communication. Self expression is often more akin to navel-gazing than to making emotional contact with the viewer. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: it is, after all, called “self” expression, which hardly suggests a two-way street.

By now you get the idea: Like other arts, the art of architecture has a lot to do—potentially—with communication. Ornament has always offered designers a delightfully versatile tool for exploring communication through architecture, in other words, lots of different ways to exercise the visual craft of design.

Ornament facilitates making buildings that evoke a rich variety of responses in viewers. Wood, stone, steel and concrete are not inherently communicative materials, after all. They need to be molded and shaped, through the skillful practice of the architect’s craft . Good designers coax expression from these inert materials. They do it by carefully assembling the many parts of a building into patterns and shapes that communicate a character, mood or spirit to the viewer. Using it skillfully takes a peculiar empathy for communicating through inanimate objects, a sensibility that understands and seeks out ways to make lumps of inert materials expressive. It’s something architects should have in abundance: “inanimate” is, after all, their entire stock in trade. And ornament was always a willing servant in this pursuit.

Most people don’t give any thought to the idea that buildings communicate. I find that odd, as they bump into them all day, every day, figuratively speaking. Building are the environment for the majority of the world’s population. For most of us, it's a rare time when we don’t have a building in our view.

Unfortunately, most of us tend not to “see” what we see. Perhaps it’s our prioritizing nature: You've got to get the latté before 9 o’clock, so you don’t really notice where the latte-maker is housed. Then again, it's easy to argue that architects don’t offer us enough to interest our eye—not just some 3-D weirdness, but something that speaks to you, that might actually say is beautiful (a word rarely used in architectural circles—perhaps for good reason).

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A classic, architectural shriek. Seattle Central Library [Rem Koolhaas, Joshua Ramus, 2004].

An amusing explanation of "form follows function."
(Why don't all libraries look this way?)

The fact that most of us don't see our surroundings is surely a combination of these two things, but I think the greater responsibility falls on the professionals who make our surroundings. Most contemporary buildings don't communicate. If they do, it's too often the architectural equivalent of a shriek. And I can't take much architectural shrieking.

I look around me and see so much contemporary architecture that lacks subtlety, is visually boring, or actively ugly. The contemporary world is filled with buildings where one glance takes it in. They beg to be forgotten, not examined.

But “Buildings communicate?” you say. I don’t think you should be surprised at this statement. If you think about it, it happens virtually every time you look at a building. And often it involves ornament in one or another of its many forms, and at the full range of scales at which “ornament” operates: from detail to general massing.

Consider this sober, sedate, formal building…

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…versus this more informal, relaxed one.

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Or, a sedate official building…

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…versus a more macho, aggressive (or should I say operatic, as it’s the Italian Embassy) official building.

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This storefront is restrained, contained and up-scale (as well as being off-center, a là moderne—but all in a rather orderly : off-center (a la Moderne), but all in an orderly fashion…

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…versus this one, a bit messy perhaps, but also relaxed, not adversely affected by the various ad libs.

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Each of these buildings is helped along in communicating its message by some species of ornament—small or large, from detail to massing.

“But hold on,” you say, “I’m a bit confused. What exactly is ornamental about these examples? Isn’t ornament just that silly stuff grandmother’s put around the edges of things…and its architectural equivalent?”

Grandma’s armchair with decorative antimacassars at its edges…

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…and the edge-decoration on this Art Deco theater.

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Well, it is, and it isn't…

Ornament is lots of things you many or may not have thought about.

It turns out that ornament—including modern (that's right, modern architectural ) ornament—has always been around, and usually does more than merely "embellish." That's what this book is about.

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