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Paris Louvre roof ornament & cresting

Guest post by Alvin Holm

The Buildings We Love are the Ones With Ornament

   Ornament is an act of love – or at least a token of esteem.  We embellish what we revere.  We adorn that which we love.  We do not decorate the hero, returning from the wars, to make him pretty – we decorate him to pay him honor.  Ornament is deep stuff, greatly misunderstood in recent years.  

Paris Louvre first level columns, entablature, and arches with man doing yoga in foreground

   The reason that we see so little ornament in buildings of our modern culture is that we do not love them.  Or perhaps we do not love them because they are unlovely, unadorned.  Nor do we think it’s nice to love them – that is, to have a visceral, sentimental, soulful relationship to them – because they are after all products of our intellect, rationally conceived, cost-effective, piously functional, sleek, sensible and cool.

   But recently <note from Steve: this was written in 1996, about a conference in the fall of 1995> I participated in a heavily attended two-day conference in New York on ornament in classical architecture, and that can only mean that things are changing fast.  

Paris Louvre upper level and gable with elaborate stone ornament

   I can no more fully understand the return of the classical – with its standard elements of columns, capitals, pediments, entablatures, and an assortment of ornamental motifs like leaves, rosettes, and garlands – than I could comprehend the loss of it.  But I believe that it accompanies what Deepak Chopra has called “the final cataclysmic overthrow of the myth of materialism.”  I assure you this is happening, and a larger, older, richer paradigm is taking the stage. (And the new science is on our side this time.  More on that later.)

   Ornament does many things for the article it graces.  It may lighten or give weight, it may reveal or disguise, it may suggest usage or mystify.  Ornament gives value and imparts meaning.  These are all worthy roles, but it is important to remember that primary relationship between the maker and the artifact and the ornament as a badge of honor and affection.  

Paris Louvre first level bench with two young lovers

   There is a large and growing school of psychology that deals now with issues of the soul.  James Hillman and Robert Sardello, for instance, would agree that ornament in this sense is good for the soul of the maker as well as for the soul of the user or the viewer, to say nothing of the soul of the artifact itself.  When the moderns stripped ornament away, much of the soul in architecture was lost.  And with it went the soul of our cities. 

   James Gleick in his popular book on chaos theory writes that to Benoit Mandelbrot, a contemporary mathematician whose concepts are affecting many fields, “the epitome of the Euclidean sensibility outside mathematics was the architecture of the Bauhaus…spare, orderly linear, reductionist, geometrical.”  To Mandelbrot and his followers, the failure of modernism is clear:  Simple geometric shapes are inhuman.  They fail to resonate with the way nature organizes itself or with the way human perception sees the world.  

Paris Louvre gable with sculptures in tympanum

   “A geometrical shape has a scale,” Gleick writes, “a characteristic size.  To Mandelbrot, art that satisfies lacks scale…A Beaux Arts paragon like the Paris Opera has no scale because it has every scale.  An observer seeing the building from any distance finds some detail that draws the eye.  The composition changes as one approaches and new elements of the structure come into play.”  So here we have New Science in praise of the old Beaux Arts. 

   Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th-centrury mystic, a nun, a writer, painter, and composer of beautiful music.  In a poem about creativity she wrote:

Paris Louvre broken bowspring pediment with elaborate stone sculpture with human figures, animals, and plants

   As the creator loves his creation

   So the creation loves the creator,

   Creation, of course, was fashioned to be adorned,

   To be showered, to be gifted with the love of the creator.

   The entire world has been embraced by this kiss.

   This affectionate reciprocity of which she writes is largely missing from our designed environment today.  Ornament is that kiss of the maker that marks the artifact for its own sake and then for the sake of the user. 

   Architecture begins as a ritual of celebration and must continue again in that spirit if we are to enter the 21st century with honor and grace.  This is a bone-deep truth that is today again rising to the surface.  A surface we may now embellish to our hearts’ content.

   ~Alvin Holm

   Alvin Holm is a Philadelphia architect practicing in the classical tradition.


   Note from Steve to Al:

   I was in the audience on the South side of  Manhattan's Washington Square that day, and your address changed my career. Previously it seemed that the only architects who cared for such things were just a few authors, but here was a practicing architect that could articulate things I could only feel at the time. Al, you laid out the ways that architecture could take on an ennobling role with clarity I had not heard theretofore, and with humility rare in our profession. You literally changed my direction, and I thank you for it now. You continue to be an inspiration unto this day.

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Alvin Holm's New York lecture in 1995 changed the direction of my career. Read his Original Green guest post, where he summarizes the lecture. Really thought-provoking stuff, IMO.

Dec 1, 2011 8:59am

Jo-Anne Peck · Co Owner at Historic Shed

I like the concept of a building offering different, but equally desirable levels of composition, detail, and ornament from varying distances. Many contemporary buildings lose any and all interest (if they have any) as you get closer to them.

Dec 1, 2011 9:10am

Bill Dawers · Editor at Hissing lawns

I wonder sometimes if design methods and models contribute to the sterility of so many modern facades. When architecture students are creating their scale models and working on designs on a computer screen, it's pretty much impossible to design intricate ornamentation as a core of the project. Ornamentation then becomes merely an add-on -- and an expensive one at that.

Dec 4, 2011 10:57pm

John David Bray Jr · Atlanta, Georgia

I agree with all this.

Dec 5, 2011 7:29am

Andrew Watt · Creative at Watermountain Studios

I have to say, the beauty of ornament lies in the role that so many people have to play. In an unornamented building, the architect is the only player in the game... in an ornamented building, the bricklayers and the masons and the woodcarvers and the tin ceiling makers all have important dimensions to add to the final construction. That makes the final work more loved — because more people have loved it into being.

Dec 6, 2011 10:30pm


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