In 1913 Adolph Loos published his essay Ornament and Crime. In it he argued that ornament had no place in the modern age as it no was “no longer the expression of our culture” and “had no potential for development.” This argument came as a reaction to the highly decorative Art Nouveau movement that was in full swing at that time. The ideas presented in Ornament and Crime became a fundamental precursor to the Modernist Movement.
Concrete was celebrated by Modernist architects for the flat smooth monochrome surfaces it was able to achieve as well as the new forms that were possible through the casting process. Utilized heavily by architects such as le Cobusier and Tadao Ando, concrete was used as a raw “honest” material, and expressed as such on Modernist buildings.
Antithetical to how concrete started its history in the contemporary era, it is now beginning to be embraced for its ability to take on an ornamental nature. The Pendorya Shopping Centre, designed by Erginoglu & Castilar Architects and located in Istanbul, utilizes cast concrete tiles to decorate the facade of the building. Out-of-the-Box-House, a Bangalore residence designed by Cadence, subverts the pure flat white surface by utilizing decorative perforations. Companies such as Transparent House are developing systems that allow decoration to be cast into floors, reminiscent of the Art Nouveau designs Loos was so critical of.
The application of ornament on these buildings makes it fairly concrete (see what I did there?). Loos’ critique that such permanent decoration would make a building quickly go out of style is valid. There is nothing about these examples of ornament that makes them timeless. But neither are our buildings. Currently, the average building lifespace is between 30-60 years. Fad-ism is rampant in our culture, but our building practice supports it.
Ornament has not yet been fully embraced by architects. We are still stuck in a mind set that discounts it from our design responsibilities. But with the new possibilities presented by materials like concrete, we have the opportunity to explore a facet of design that is hardly entered to find a form of ornament valid for this time and place.