Ornament, the Detail, and Architecture


The history of art proposes different approaches to the design solutions, based on the critical viewpoints and practical art works from different periods. Significantly, the works that contain ornaments are specifically interesting for researchers, who seek for the truly reserved guidance for implementation the new forms of dots, lines, abstracts, volumetric texture, and other elements of ornaments that are in deep interest for them. 

The difference in views towards ornament in architectural design projects varied throughout the centuries, in different countries of the world they were different. In this relation, the aim of this paper is to analyze three historical approaches to ornament: John Ruskin (1819-1900, Victorian England), Louis Sullivan (1856-1924, the USA), and Adolf Loos (1870 – 1933, Czchechosolvakia). They argued that the relevance between style and ornament is significant, for each decoration creates the spirit of the building in a way it has power to dominate over the other elements of architectural layout. It helps to implement new technologies and change buildings, according to the current modern style, even if the building was created in the opposite style fin the past centuries. Some authors agreed with this viewpoint, and others through that there is no need to change style according to modernity.

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This paper will critically analyze the viewpoints of two prominent architecture and one art critic in order to find out the solution on the ornament justification in the modernity. How it works, is it needed nowadays? Different historical approaches will be presented to address these questions.

Approach to Ornament by John Ruskin

As an art critic, John Ruskin was aware that there is no need to reshape buildings according to the needs and tastes of modernity. When he became the Oxford’s first State Professor of Fine Art, he delivered a lecture devoted to the current need of the philosophy of art. For instance, in his viewpoint, and architector should be morally responsible at the upcoming generations when delivering his design project presenting it in public. In order to explicate his view, he delivered the work called The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential essay on the Gothic revival and its significance in art.  For instance, the moral categories that are not formal but meaningful were presented as obligations: sacrifice (dedication to God as the universal Creator who provides the craftsman with his talent); truth (being honest to display the structural elements and features of ornament); power (the willing decision of the craftsman to work out the natural elements of sublimity of actions in human mind to display the features of contrast between elements and  render them in the building); beauty (inspiration to create the ornaments, taken from nature and based on distinct features of it – plants, animals, fire, water, ground, air, etc.); life (the expressiveness of mind is rendered in building by human hands); memory (building projects should be constructed based on the culture, in the frameworks of which they are to be developed); obedience (following the Gothic style as the sign of revival in architecture, the safest combination of determinant features that shape up objects up streaming to the high  to the sky). These features as moral categories were expressed by Ruskin in his famous essay to highlight the benefits of his choice as art critic that leads to success in style.

Approach to Ornament by Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan presented his own unique point of view on the role of ornament in architecture and particularly in the modern design projects. While Ruskin loved overshadowing in terms of contrasts between light and the dark, Sullivan was about to create “pronouncements about the metaphysical meaning of his architectural designs and the landscape references in his ornament”. By the way, in the history of art, his significance was too high, for he was considered to be the “father of skyscrapers”. The modernity in his designs were recognized to be well adjusted in the functionality of the following architectural projects: the Auditorium Building through the Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store in Chicago. The structure of the building includes Sullivan’s vision on perspective and modern functionalism, in relevance to the modern poetical significance of his project. In relation to ornament, he defended pragmatic viewpoint, being aware that there is no need to add extra ornament details, when there is a need to add space and freedom in contrast of colors and textures. Sullivan was about to develop his viewpoint on ornament in modern architecture, when proposing the evolving color theory: some one color should dominate throughout all essential features of the design project. And, when it turns to balance in ornaments between interior and exterior of the building, it is required not to focus only on one element of design, - this will help to avoid conflicts in design matters. Sullivan used to develop the approach of masking the structural reality in his projects, when some details he was about to hide, making a clear accent on others in contrast to the initial design procedure planning. When analyzing Sullivan’s approach to ornament in architecture semantically, it should be pointed out that he was the supporter of the modern functionalism in architecture, when considering balance between different elements of the building similar to the harmony between ecosystems in nature. In this relation, he developed the special discourse theory of architecture that praised the post structural naturalism in its features.

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Approach to Ornament Adolf Loos

Adolf Loos developed the approach according to which "no ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level ... Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength". In order to implement his design projects, he used expensive materials, including marble, expensive stones, wood, etc. Classically, his design projects were made with love and care about the quality of perception of his works by eth audience. 

Loos formulated his views on ornament in the influential work Ornament and Crime that was about to highlight the radically stated position: the progress in culture means the deletion of the ornaments from buildings. The author logically explained his position: there is no need to add ornaments to adjust the present features of any building to make it meet the standards of the current style, as in any case, any current modern style leads to become obsolete.


The rate of significance of the ornament in art depends on the period of the cultural development of the humankind and on the country, in which some ornamental features are dominant. Weingarden, in reference to the cultural heritage by Louis H. Sullivan leaves this question open-up, but points out that there is close correspondence that poetics of natural art is the way to express of feelings and emotions that are universal for human beings: we can all feel joy and sorrow in different periods of our lives. Therefore, nature plays a crucial role in our life, as it helps us to remain who we are and who we want to become in future. In this relation, Cook and Wedderburn are aware that Ruskin’s viewpoint on art as moral obligation is a lively and universal solution to seek for the truth in both nature and as a gift inherited from God. The Gothic revival motivates people to speak out the best in them, when staying within the Gothic cathedral and following the behavior of sorrow and redemption for sins. In this relation, the art is the way of catharsis for the human soul, as it regulates fears, stimulates tears, and helps to build the coping strategies of the well-defined moral behavior to each other.

When dealing with importance of ornament, there is no need to overburden the design project with any structural elements of design, specifically sculpture. The example of ornaments in the Eastern style of architectural compositions, however, is more significant than it is in the West. In addition, modern technologies in design projects, including 3D modeling, do not develop ornaments in the wide use. The reason is that not to follow tastes for some pictures in design, but developing the space for people who live in it, the comfortable zone, where people work and rest, without any need to distract their attention to lines, dots, geometrical shapes and other unnecessary visual information.

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