We decorate. We decorate for birthday parties, holiday parties, weddings and anniversaries. We wear costumes, colorful ties, shirts and socks, printed dresses, brocade, jewelry, hats. We outfit our homes with objects, furniture, drapes, fabrics and wall paper. Fashion designers, interior designers and graphic artists engage in decoration as if it were a natural part of what they do. Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Miuccia Prada have turned ornamentation into conceptual art. Well regarded contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley and Linda Owens willingly engage in elaborate, sometimes highly charged ornamental compositions--this despite that not long ago, to call a work of art "decorative" was the worst kind of insult. For more than five thousand years prior to 1945, ornament was integrated into the architecture of almost every building—at least every one that mattered. Why no more, why not now? Or if now, how?
We are probably more at home with ephemeral decoration because it’s less of a commitment. A child’s birthday party or a friend’s wedding gives us permission to indulge in the décor. It brings forth simple pleasures however fleeting, or maybe because they are fleeting. Joyous occasions prompt joyous décor. The décor at a celebration must work—why else would we go to the trouble? But cannot daily life itself also be joyous? Cannot the buildings around us also be the décor of joyous lives? Yes, of course, buildings do not make us happy, we make ourselves happy, but the décor can’t hurt.
Architectures in every era and every area of the world have engaged in ornamentation—integrated and inseparable from a building’s structure, material and form. Patterns in color and relief—whether figurative (inspired by nature) or abstract (founded on geometry) sometimes rendered with astounding mathematical sophistication can be found in the architecture of every culture on every continent since humans became conscious. These buildings through their ornamental regimes are messages writ large: they mean something for the people and place for which they are composed.
Perhaps the most sophisticated system with which most of us are familiar is that which emerged in the west: the Greco-Roman tradition, or what has been called the “classical language” of architecture. This “language” can only be described as a system of ornamentation, and until the turn of the 20th century, it was a language that for those many educated in it meant something-- many things. Resilient, flexible, enduring, this system of ornamentation had the amazing ability to both animate buildings (inspire joy, sometimes fear) and give them meaning (create community). It’s gone now, meaningful mostly only to historians, never to return. For most of us it means “old” or “traditional” or “government building”.
For lots of reasons, some of them good ones, the classical tradition of ornamentation abruptly ended in the 20th century -- briefly delayed with fleeting experiments in alternatives (art nouveau, art deco) -- but finally extinguished. This all took a slightly sociopathic turn when it was declared and then commonly accepted that ornamentation was unsophisticated, unbecoming of literate, modern people. Buildings were rendered mute—incapable of speaking to anyone other than their authors and their authors’ audience of peers. Ornament now means “stupid” or “sentimental”. This is sadness masquerading as sophistication. Buildings can be beautiful, awe-inspiring wonderful places to inhabit without the embellishment of what we all think of as ornament, but they can be with it too. Why censor ourselves? There are so many possibilities, so many techniques—techniques of ornamentation, old and new-- that have the potential to yield such joyful results. We can be smart and happy too. Buildings can be intelligently conceived and mean something to those for whom they are conceived. They can be the décor of life.