Saturday, September 22, 2007

Book Review: The Function of Ornament, Edited by Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo


The debate between excess and minimalism in architecture will likely continue in the same sinusoidal pattern as the rising and falling of hemlines in fashion. While economists have precisely tied the lengths of hemlines of skirts with the economy, the fluctuations of architectural ornamentation take place over far greater spans of time. Perhaps this is because the construction of architectural projects can be measured in years while the demands of fashion fluctuate from season to season.

Alternatively, deeper forces may be at work. Recent work in evolutionary psychology dictates that human beings are swayed by a desire to fit in, but those who rebel in the opposite direction often become the most successful. This dichotomy can be seen in the rugged fashion of punk's opposition to repressive governments, the backlash of the hippie movement from the cookie-cutter fifties, and even in the haphazard grunge look that grew in stark contrast to glam rock and hair metal. Though purists like Adolf Loos or John Pawson might disagree, seemingly fickle changes in design movements may have as much to do with the culture that preceded them as they are a manifestation of the times themselves. Modern architecture would have little sway without the precedents of Antoni Gaudi or the Baroque movement.

In their book The Function of Ornament, Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo attempt to explain the paradox of the seemingly purposeless vestiges people emblazon on top of "functional" architecture. After a short introduction tracing the popularity of ornament from the Romans to the modernists, Moussavi and Kubo jump right into examples. While an exploration of the antecedents of modernism (and by association, their logical successors in "modern" ornament) could warrant a whole book, the philosophizing is kept to a minimum in favor of graphic examples of buildings which occasionally manage to make ornament functional.

Setting aside the inherent dialectic, a common theme across all projects is a sense of order, often achieved by repetition or by symmetry. Occasionally, the organizatiton even veers into the fractal -- the natural placement of compounded numbers seen repeatedly in the physical world -- such as the Serpentine Pavilion designed by Toyo Ito in London, where crisscrossing lines form triangles out of varying or seemingly random spaces, or the Dominus Winery by Herzog & de Meuron in the Napa Valley, where different sizes of natural rocks together cascade into seemingly random particles while betraying an underlying order.

The Function of Ornament goes beyond simply finding commonalities, and the authors' efforts at categorization are admirable. The book groups architectural projects into four broad sections: Form, Structure, Screen, and Surface, and provides examples of each. The authors supply notes and snippets detailing the construction of each work, but for the most part, they let the works express themselves.

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Posted by: Robert Blinn |

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