Monday, March 5, 2012


There’s an old joke on architects that goes back to the days of Beaux-Arts classicism. It seems a big city suffered an earthquake, and a reporter was sent out to report on the damage.  He soon returned with his assessment. “The buildings are fine,” he said, “but all the architecture fell off.”

The tendency of architects to lard buildings with ornament goes back centuries, if not millenia. In more recent times, Victorian architects were renowned for their addiction to ornament. But in fact, no architect of any era, no matter how chaste, can really claim to be immune from the urge to decorate.

Mid-twentieth century modern architecture should represent, if anything, the ultimate refutation of ornament. Yet the Modernists slyly came up with their own brand of decoration, though they strained mightily to justify it on functional grounds.  

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, among the most supremely rational architects of his era, insisted that buildings should express their underlying structure. So passionate was he in this belief that when he designed Chicago’s highrise Lake Shore Apartments in the late 1940s, he couldn’t bear the thought of the building’s steel frame being hidden by fireproofing. His solution was to apply a phalanx of delicate, costly, and most definitely nonfunctional bronze I-beams to the outside of the buildings to “represent” its structural columns.

Edward Durell Stone, another stellar Modernist, did much to steer modernism into the more decorative phase it entered in the late 1950s. Stone was terribly fond of sunscreens--whether of pierced metal, cast concrete, or stacked block--and he never passed up a chance to feature them in his work. To be functional in the Modernist  sense, of course, a sunscreen seemingly ought to face the sun, yet Stone’s increasingly elaborate screens often appeared on all sides of his buildings (in fairness, Stone eventually recanted Modernism and gave his decorative gene free rein.)

The Postmodernist movement, ushered in by architect Robert Venturi’s seminal book Learning from Las Vegas, more or less called a spade a spade and acknowledged that undecorated buildings were, well—dull.  

“Less is more,” Mies had said. “Less is a bore,” countered Venturi. This rebellious premise opened the floodgates for a whole new generation of decorative architecture, some well-reasoned, some not.  
In our own time, we’re still seeing the detritus of the Postmodernist love for ironic, discordant, or illogical decoration. If anything, today’s architects have upped the ante on superfluous doodads. Rather than design growing naturally out of structure in the Modernist sense, architects are increasingly returning to the idea of buildings as mere decorated boxes, to which a profusion of nonfunctional sunshades, canopies, and metal outriggers are applied like so many bangles and bows.  

Whether we identify with Traditionalism, Modernism, Postmodernism, or some other “-ism” yet to be invented, we architects still respond to gewgaws the way ants do to a dropped Slurpee. We may think of today’s work as more sophisticated, but in that old joke’s proverbial earthquake, it still wouldn’t matter if all the architecture fell off.  The pieces would just look a little different.

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