“Ornament is crime” is crime: In London, the debate over architectural ornamentation settled over beer and shot of vodka

Architecture Art Design International Media
No distractions. All cell phones were to be placed into a personal silver carrier and sealed

No distractions. All cell phones were to be placed into a personal silver carrier and sealed.

There are six clear reasons why Turncoats, a new architectural debating format, is continuing to ruffle more than just a few feathers in Hoxton, East London. 1) It is free. 2) You are given a bottle of craft beer upon entry. 3) A musical comedy act featuring a game of “Hitler or Ham” introduces the evening. 4) The audience must do a shot of vodka before the debate. 5) An intellectual debate on whether ornament is crime proceeds and 6) everyone cheers at the end and goes home smiling. All very well, but what was the result of all this?

(Courtesy Turncoats)

(Courtesy Turncoats)

As tempting as it is to go into detail over the “Hitler or ham” debacle, the real issue in Hoxton Hall on the 27th January was the debate on whether the statement “ornament is crime” is a crime itself.

In order to solve this, three panels were put in place with two arguing for and against and the other an independent adjudicator dubbed “Switzerland.”

And so Adam Nathaniel Furman, architect, furniture designer and founder of the Postmodern Society, stepped forward with the first of what would be four prewritten arguments. Here, he compared ornament to wearing clothes, inferring that dressing our buildings is no different. Further still, ornament evokes a sense of freedom, liberality and identity. “If form was really so pure, we should all walk round naked!” Furman exclaimed. We dress up to represent our ideals and what we stand for and architecture should do the same he concluded.

Postmodernist decoration: The Portland Building in August 1982. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Postmodernist decoration: The Portland Building in August 1982. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

To counter this, Studio Weave co-founder Jane Hall retorted that ornament hides a building’s true identity and distracts us from the faults and failings of reality within the built environment. A window decoration, for example, guides our gaze from the cracks in the pavement and potholes in the street. Money is hence more willingly spent on splendor rather than maintenance of our everyday basic needs when the opposite should enforced.

Now, the debate was in full swing, and up stepped fashion satirist Bertie Brandes who wasted no time in slating those against decoration. “Minimalists are basic b*****s to the highest degree.” Interestingly, Brandes pointed out that ornament is literally a crime in rented accommodation whereby nailing a picture in to the wall can break the tenancy agreement. From this we can take solace in the fact that implementing decoration is indeed part of the great struggle against the “facist” orthodoxy. “Why should we let architectural class dictate the aesthetic of our cities?” Brandes questioned, suggesting that ornament can help aesthetically democratise our built environment.

The Villa Savoye is free from ornamental distractions (m-louis / Flickr)

The Villa Savoye is free from ornamental distractions (m-louis / Flickr)

Finally, Rory Hyde, curator of Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism at the V&A Museum in London, came forward. Like Brandes, he was quick to make an equally sweeping statement: “Ornament is just s**t smearing” he said. Hyde went on to say how Donald Trump’s home/palace is rather heavily decorated, posing the question (albeit not so seriously) that to endorse ornament essentially means that one also endorses his policies.

However, Hyde later went on to say that the the thing about real palaces is that they do have power and indeed are the pinnacle of ornamentation. With real monarchial palaces, you are always born into them and hence ornamentation is inherently classist.

Looshaus Michaelerplatz, Vienna. Adolf Loos was the author of the essay "Ornament is crime" (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Looshaus Michaelerplatz, Vienna. Adolf Loos was the author of the essay “Ornament is crime.” (Wikipedia)

After some light-hearted exchanges, somehow moderated by Charles Holland (co-founder of Ordinary Architecture), the debate eventually boiled down to fascism versus democracy.

AN also weighed in on the debate, posing the following dilemma: “In which of the two scenarios is the most powerful ornamental statement made? Scenario One, a street full of flamboyant, heavily decorated structures juxtaposed by one minimalist building, or Scenario Two, a street full of minimalist structures, all uniform in style juxtaposed by one flamboyant, heavily decorated building?”

Furman was quick to respond. “I like this idea, in a sense you think of it being similar school uniforms as we dress our buildings. On school days, we all have to look the same, but on the weekends we get to wear what we want.” Hence, freedom only becomes liberating when one is oppressed or when one has the knowledge that one will be oppressed in the future (like on Monday, once the weekend is over).

Secret Intelligence Service's postmodern building at Vauxhall Cross. SIS is sometimes known as MI6 (George Rex / Flickr)

Secret Intelligence Service’s postmodern building at Vauxhall Cross. SIS is sometimes known as MI6. (George Rex / Flickr)

As the evening progressed, the case for ornamentation became stronger. Ornament can be useful for way-finding, it was said using the example that taxi drivers use ornamentation on buildings to guide them around London. Hyde pointed out that while Aravena despises ornamentation, he lets the occupants of his buildings dictate their own ornamental style. Decoration from the user symbolizes pride of place and lets the place become their own.

Hyde continued, noting that on the flip side of this, how much choice or freedom do we really have to make it our own? Most look to IKEA to furnish their dwellings. To be truly democratic or liberated would be to make the furniture ourself.

Furman essentially closed the lid on the debate. “We pretend that modernism is the pioneer of neutrality, looking at everyone as equal. It may do this, but in doing so just perpetuates a power struggle within this society. Instead, let’s celebrate our differences.”

At the end of the evening, with many of the audience drunk on well-presented architectural arguments on ornament (and slightly tipsy from the alcohol) the statement “ornament is not crime” got the biggest cheer. Democracy had triumphed and we were all architecturally liberated.

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