Uta Caspary

Sign  –  Image  –  Facade
Ornament in Contemporary Architecture


Lecture: 29 October 2009





Celebrated and condemned in turns, trendsetting and bound to tradition at the same time, ornament is a fundamental phenomena of modern architectural practice and theory. The subject was reactivated in the 1990s when the digital turn - or the establishing of computer-based drafting and production processes in architecture - triggered renewed interest in ornament, first and foremost as it applied to the "face" of a building. At the same time, ornament can be tied into to broader cultural-historical contexts. It can be seen as a mirror of the close correlation and interdependencies between art, culture and architecture history.

Using three current buildings as examples, the lecture will draw three aspects of ornament’s significance in contemporary architecture to the fore: First, ornamental drafting methods are often closely tied to artistic processes, with architects co-operating with artists or employing their strategies. The spectrum of influences spans from abstract colour painting and conceptual art to arte povera, pop art and contemporary digital art, which used in the making of media facades. Second, ornamental buildings can create or more firmly establish a place-specific identity through a return to traditional forms and motifs associated with the region, and by modifying these in line with current technology. Third, in the course of digitalisation, technical-constructive, material and pictorial-ornamental aspects have visibly merged to form a new, single entity, voiding the oft-cited dichotomy in ornamental discourse between necessary construct and functionless décor. Thus the ornamental facade has developed from one of most superficial, added-on layers or uninformative surface to an integral component in the total construction. In serving a dual function as both a regulative and decorative element, architectural ornament is not only an expression of a fascination with perception but rather, at most, it is also an expression in its own right: it can be characterised as sign, visual code and image at the same time.