When in 1910 Adolf Loos gave his lecture and subsequently published his essay “Ornament and Crime” it was a reaction to the Arts and Crafts movement with its overly decorated output. Loos’ insights paved the way for modernist thinking and the elimination of decoration in architecture for the benefit of visual simplicity. Merged with the Fordism approach to industrial production and the social agenda of the Bauhaus movement, this turned into an economic logic driving affordable housing for the masses by means of prefabrication and repetition. This approach has been particularly successful in socialist countries that adopted the approach championed and partially enforced by the Soviet Union and to this very day, large parts of Eastern Europe use a modified version of this model to provide for affordable housing. Even though in Western Europe a similar model was used in the 1960s and 1970s, its legacy is less of a success. From the 80s of the last century onwards many of the estates built in this way turned into social hotspots with the more affluent social groups moving out and growing decay due to a lack of maintenance. The demise was subsequently blamed on the lack of ornament. No ornament had turned into crime. In the following a new aesthetic was developed that came to be known as post-modernism. Architecture full of decoration and historical references reintroduced what Loos had tried to eradicate. In the meantime we have landed in the post-post-modernist period where ornament is not a crime and where we seem to enter into a new retro. Buildings look again the way they looked a hundred years ago, and architects have found pleasure in designing new ornamentation for their buildings for the single purpose of decoration. Despite the fact that everyone involved in a building’s evolution constantly raises concerns about the cost of it, there seems to be a willingness to invest into decoration – if only it makes the building stand out and increases the chance of selling at higher prices.
It is time for Ornament and Crime 2.0. We should stop wasting materials for the simple sake of decorating a building. To me adding elements that do not serve a purpose other than showing off is a crime against nature and an active wilful contribution to making climate change worse. They consume valuable resources and making them, transporting them, and placing them pollutes the atmosphere with tons and tons and tons of CO2. Different to the purely aesthetic discussion Adolf Loos had, this time this does not necessarily mean we should refrain from using any form of ornament. It should lead however to a focus on a different kind of ornamentation. There is nothing wrong about showing the beauty of a brick wall with its patterns and the play of brick and mortar. There is nothing wrong about a relief in a concrete façade and there is nothing wrong about using already existing elements with patterns and ornaments and reuse them. But there is a lot of wrong when a wooden decorative grid is added to prefab containers serving no other purpose than ‘looking interesting’ or when cladding an otherwise banal shed with an extra layer of corrugated aluminium so that it does not look as dreadful. If we want these buildings to be more beautiful, then we should invest in making them such in the first place.
Rethinking the role of ornamentation in architecture can be a unique opportunity to make buildings less carbon heavy and more resource saving. And it is a chance to develop a new aesthetic expression that reflects the time we are in. It is an open question how this will look like, and the way there is equally unclear. Maybe looking at the history of architecture can give us clues. Over the course of time, a new aesthetic always emerged as a reaction to fundamental social, technological and economic changes. The environment often had an influence as the context against which one had to protect oneself or one was forced to make use of. In essence, that setup still stands today. It is exactly that frontier mentality – conquering and defending, that exploitative attitude, that causes a large part of today’s problems, and we have become experts in developing technologies and economic models that support this. If the global North wants to maintain the standard of life we currently have and the rest of the world rightfully aspires to get there as well, we need to radically change that mentality – economically and technologically. For us as designers, that must have an impact on aesthetic models we are pursuing.
I can envision an aesthetic that is more considerate about where it decorates and where it does not. I can envision an aesthetic that re-uses existing things as a means to add ornamentation. I can envision an architecture that integrates rather than dominates. But above all I can envision an architecture that makes use of all the solutions mankind has developed before the invention of the air conditioner, the central heating system, mechanical ventilation and all the other technologies that allow us to ignore the natural environment we are in. Of course, not all of us can go back and live in a yurt, a stilt house or log hut. But there is a lot we can do to adapt the underlying principles for our cities and contemporary architecture. The former derive their beauty and their ornamentation from the considerate use of the materials they are made of and the way they are engaging with their surrounding environment. Why can our urban structures not do the same. Being of a whole different scale will mean that they not only will have to engage but provide natural environments themselves. I sincerely hope that we move beyond planting trees on buildings as our seemingly only answer to meet the climate challenge. Without today’s technology, mankind has been ingenious in developing solutions – why is all most architect’s can offer today greenwashing and ultimately adding trees as an ornament that causes more CO2 than it removes.
When identifying Ornament as Crime, Adolf Loos wanted to wake people and his disciples up to the times that had moved beyond arts and crafts, to the industrial age. I believe it is time for another wakeup call that declares wasteful decorative ornamentation a crime. Alone – this time, it not only is about the adequate aesthetic representation of the time we are in. It is more serious – it is a crime against mankind in its very existence.