Alina Payne is an architectural historian at Harvard known for her deep research into ornament. But when I reached her to talk through the possibility of a revival in surface decoration, even she took a minute to take in the idea.
“You’re talking about excrescences,” she said with a laugh, using a word more likely to apply to tumors or warts than to appealing detailing. Her language made clear how hard it still is, in her world, to see Victorian-style fripperies as legitimate.
In 1910, as the Victorian era was passing into history, the pioneering Modernist Adolf Loos published an influential essay titled “Ornament and Crime,” contending that a love of decorative detail, such as architects had deployed since ancient Greece and before, was actually a sign of a weak, disordered, “primitive” – even felonious – mind.
Professor Payne explained that those ideas still have sway, at least subconsciously, among many of today’s most serious architects. She imagines that most 21st-century studios may still not have enough distance from Victorian models.
Professor Payne also suggested that Modernism may have truly come of age only quite recently, with new technologies and materials that have allowed it to realize its full potential. Today’s computers permit flights of modern form that a Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe – even an Alvar Aalto or Oscar Niemeyer – could never have achieved.
A New Ornamentalism, Professor Payne explained, may in fact be limited by the same software that has allowed it to flourish. The standard tools of digital design seem better suited to warping an entire building or texturizing a whole facade than to adding a flood of unique, tantalizing decorations.
That’s why BKSK did not deploy just the standard computer assisted design programs that form and deform bauble buildings. The firm also borrowed software from filmmaking and video gaming to guarantee the complexity of the building’s terra-cotta adornments. Programs often used to manipulate images of people and possessions put BKSK’s architects in a “mind-set,” said Mr. Poisson, to treat their decorations as characters in a story or actors on a stage – not a bad metaphor, as well, for how Victorian ornament functioned.
But the most important thing to recognize in the decoration at 529 Broadway is that it isn’t “wry or tongue-in-cheek,” said Harry Kendall, a partner at BKSK. Architects had tried to revive ornamentalism once before, in the 1980s, with postmodernism. But that movement’s decorative gestures – a modern skyscraper topped with a neo-Classical pediment; a concrete library shaped like the Roman Coliseum – were clearly ironic, with a wink and a nod to past pleasures in ornament rather than with a true commitment to updating those pleasures for modern use.
Postmodern architecture had something about it that could seem condescending, maybe even snide – at very least insiderish – and this kept the movement from flourishing. If it had an afterlife, it was in the reactionary, pseudo-Victorian housing developments that have been ringing our cities for the last several decades. Those may reflect the true pleasure that nonexperts take in ornament, but they don’t acknowledge that the best decoration has always managed to speak of its era.
“There’s rote decoration – but this is un-rote decoration,” said Mr. Kendall, as he clicked through slides of his firm’s Broadway building.
Nineteenth-century developers were hardly compelled to cover their facades in ornaments. Mr. Kendall imagines instead that they were subject to a social compact that was all about adding “tactile pleasure to the civic fabric” – garland by garland, building by building and street by street, until the whole city seemed to come alive. That “fractal” quality is just what has been lost with the New Ornamentalism, according to the Harvard professor Antoine Picon. By treating each new building as its own “heroic surge,”he told me, “we’ve impoverished, in some sense, the various scales at which cities function.”
Although 529 Broadway is a joy to look at, its decoration runs more than skin deep. In its fine, thoughtful and varied detail, the building speaks to passing New Yorkers at a scale that seems to respect them as individual, embodied citizens.
It conveys a sense of generosity, with each ornament conjuring up the moment when one human being made the decision to put it there, as an aesthetic offering to others. The facade’s details invite a closer approach and a dialogue about what they’re up to; they ask for interpretation and understanding, like letters in an alphabet you only just grasp.
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