I’ve been reflecting on the fact that I seem to enjoy ornament and decoration in a variety of historic buildings, but not in contemporary buildings.
Perhaps I’ve been indoctrinated to Modernist thinking – but it’s not a wilful submission – I really, honestly think the Barcelona Pavilion is sensational. But if I have been indoctrinated, then as an architectural tutor I might be passing that indoctrination on; perpetuating in my own little way an ideology which accepts and celebrates ornament in Gothic Cathedrals but not in contemporary architecture. Similarly – how can I justify being so dismissive of the Classical / Traditional Revivalists (see the popular architectural punch bag at Poundbury), while enjoying the historic buildings that those architects are attempting to pay tribute to?
Perhaps it’s best to accept and embrace the differences… In music I enjoy the Chemical Brothers and Nick Drake equally (and they articulate very different sonic aesthetics!).
I recently reviewed a series of drawings produced by students to record the architecture of key buildings in Cambridge and Edinburgh. It feels somewhat uncomfortable, that having commended the way the students had captured the exquisite beauty of the ornament in those buildings, I’ll probably help them to pursue archetypal Modernist clarity (characterised by an absence of decoration) in their own design projects later in the year.
In some (historic) buildings it seems like the decoration and ornament is the specific quality that makes the architecture impressive and memorable, yet in other (contemporary neo-classical) buildings could be considered evidence of lamentable and unworthy pastiche. My instinctive reaction is that the critical issue is something to do with the era of the architecture and its prevailing cultural / architectural context.
So, in great historic buildings the beauty of the architecture is supported by the richness and crafted intricacy of ornament and decoration. Meanwhile, in great contemporary buildings the beauty of the architecture is supported by the rigour of pure space and clean lines – the absence of ornament and decoration. Does a building really have to be 400 years old before I’ll revel in all that ornament? Can there really be a statute of limitations on embracing decoration in / on buildings?
There’s a problem with my own rationale here which feels uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s difficult to explain, and therefore, it’s difficult to defend!