The Purpose of Ornament: A Response to “Ornament and Crime” by Adolf Loos

Hello World!

This post is based off of a reading response in old class I was in Survey II: Architectural History 1750-Present. This has been my favorite to write, and I wanted to polish it and present it to the public.  The article is “Ornament and Crime”  by Adolf Loos. As I am currently in a class about Adolf Loos and Mies Van der Rohe, and due to some recent commetary, this post needs to be updated.

The Looshaus, Alfred Loos's greatest work, has very little amounts of ornament.
The Looshaus, one of Alfred Loos’s pieces of architecture.

The article “Ornament and Crime” rejects the idea of ornament for architecture for modern times. Adolf Loos, the author and an architect, argues that he prefers the smooth and simple things over the wasteful, ornamented designs for cigarette books and shoes. Therefore, he prefers less ornament in architecture, and that is the future of architecture. There is no way to remove ornament completely, as other elements will decorate a building without directly referencing a past culture. Ornament should be used in a good amounts to portray the necessary symbolism of a building.

Frank Lloyd Wright ornament the Robie House with natural geometry.
Frank Lloyd Wright ornaments the Robie House with natural geometry.

The character of a building comes from the ornament. Certain styles of architecture have certain meanings behind them correlating to time periods. Certain types of ornament come from these styles. The modern use of these ancient forms is like in allusion in a novel to another piece of literature. In a book, referencing the Bible can portray meaning as stories of virtue, and good vs. evil. In the same way, decorating a government building with Roman temple format can evoke power and greatness that the Romans are associated with. The removal of such ornament would remove such symbolism. It is possible to create new types of ornamentation,  such as the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright and his geometry. However, there is no way to remove ornament from already-built architecture without losing its character. Then, the building’s  meaning must either be dependent on structure and form, or it can appear bland to the eyes.

The Casa Mila has curves to look like the cliffs of Barcelona.
The Casa Mila has curves to look like the cliffs of Barcelona.

Can a building exist without ornamentation? It is impossible to create a building without some elements forming the meaning behind the design, and decorating the building. Material can be one way to decorate a building without the “ornament” of old. The colors and textures behind limestone, brick, steel and other materials add to the character of the building by themselves. Glass evokes crystals, openness, and exuberance. Textured stone represents a weathered and old appearance. The color of these materials can adorn a building with symbolism. For example, white symbolizes  purity and, gray steel is seen as sleek and futuristic. The other way a building can be decorated is by structure and form. The building can be rounded with curves such as Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Mila. The ideals of openness and freedom of expression can be associated with these curves. Another ideal can be a glass and steel grid and be based in openness, such as Mies van der Rohe’s designs. Grids enforce order in style, but glass allows such ideals to break this order. Structure can ornament a building, such as steel supports, or vertical columns. This returns to the original purpose of Greek and Roman columns, but removing the context. The use of vestigial structure can be ornament. Now the focus is on the engineering and emotion behind the building, rather than the décor and symbolism. Mies Van der Rohe’s Glass Skyscraper prototypes have no ornament, but let grids form style.

Mies Van der Rohe's Glass Skyscraper prototypes have no ornament, bit let grids form style.
Mies Van der Rohe’s Glass Skyscraper prototypes have no ornament, but let grids form style.

These ideals do not just apply to the beginning of the 20th century, but today. New ideas in engineering must be created in order to create new building forms and ways to support them. Ornament that existed before the 20th century is not often used in newer buildings. As technology increases, new ideas are being created to which form and structure is becoming more unique, and these ideas ornament a space. So is ornament dead? No, but rather new ideas are creating new ways to decorate a building. Today, older buildings that exist remain relevant because of their symbolism. We still look for meaning in new buildings, but ornament is no longer the main way to present meaning.