What is Modern? 1. Lack of Ornamentation

Part 1 of a 10-part series on what is Modern.

Rococo (over)ornamentation (photo from Wikipedia)

Lack of ornamentation is key to Modern: Thou shall not adorn thy buildings with puffery. The rebellion against over-ornamentation goes back to the mid-1800s with the likes of William Morris, he in turn inspired by the writings of John Ruskin. Morris and his followers created the Arts and Crafts Movement in architecture (more commonly called Craftsman in the United States) that celebrated the handiwork of the craftsman in contrast to machine-generated lathe work lathered upon the gingerbread Victorians of the time.

The anti-over-ornamentation movement was furthered by Louis Sullivan (who wrote “It could only benefit us if for a time we were to abandon ornament and concentrate entirely on the erection of buildings that were finely shaped and charming in their sobriety.”) and then carried even farther by his one-time understudy Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1800s. Although Sullivan and Wright railed against ornamentation, they continued to ornament their work (Wright less so than Sullivan) albeit at a greatly reduced level than their contemporaries.

Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York, by Louis Sullivan (photo from Wikipedia)

Adolf Loos, inspired by the quote above from Sullivan, reached the apex of anti-ornamentation, at least theoretically, in 1910 when he provocatively (and entertainingly) equated ornamentation with criminality in a speech and later an essay titled “Ornamentation and Crime”. Loos wrote "To find beauty in form instead of making it depend on ornament is the goal to which humanity is aspiring."  He goes on to equate any kind of ornamentation with degenerate and illicit behavior: “The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.” and “Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.”

I wonder what Adolf Loos would think about kids these days...

Rufer House, 1922, by Adolf Loos. Yo, Loos: What's with the frieze?!?!?

Because of Loos, the complete lack of ornamentation became the ideal and a major commandment of Modern architecture. However, even he, perhaps at the bitter behest of clients, included some ornamentation in his buildings. It was the next generation, the true Modernists, that erased ornamentation from buildings completely.

Put quite simply, Modern architecture is not ornamented. This does not mean that Modern architecture is not artful or pleasing to the eye, it’s just that its beauty is in the skin and bones, not the makeup or the jewelry.

A natural beauty.

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