Structure/ornament and the Modern Figuration of Architecture

By Sankovitch, Anne-Marie | The Art Bulletin, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Structure/ornament and the Modern Figuration of Architecture


Sankovitch, Anne-Marie, The Art Bulletin


Roman architecture often reduced the Greek orders to mere ornament applied to arcuated structures. The Lombard chapel piled up ornament on the purist structure of the Florentine model.

In the nineteenth century a building was made a structure to receive an envelope of surface ornament. To be authentically modern was to strip categorically from structure all ornament.

Few readers would find anything remarkable about the prominent use of structure and ornament in such statements, which resemble actual passages of innumerable modern writings on architecture. These two words seem to describe unproblematically only what is physically there; "structure/ ornament" appears to embody the very nature of much built reality. We do not in general question, or even feel that it is necessary to question, what structure and ornament actually signify, or to ask why they so typically appear as an oppositional pair. Nor do we often seriously reflect on the historical origin of the pair (which is generally grossly misdated) or study the implications of that origination. In the absence of such critical analysis, we fail to realize how pervasive and compelling a figuration of architecture the structure/ ornament pair is, and that it determines in massive ways much of how we think and write about many aspects of architecture and its history, and even to a large extent how we build. To initiate such an analysis is the primary aim of this essay, which is intended not to resolve issues attending specific historical sites but rather to excavate and closely scrutinize certain assumptions and problematics that pervade and frame structure/ornament, and thereby to put to critical questioning the seemingly transparent nature of much recent and current architectural discourse.

St-Eustache as Structure/Ornament Paradigm Architectural history today frequently seeks to interpret buildings as objects shaped by and expressive of their social meanings and historical contexts. The function of a building is consequently understood as primarily representational and often as actively engaged in defining the social world of which it is a part. It would be both unexceptional and commendable to decide that the best way to grasp the realities of, for instance, a fifteenth-century Florentine church is to chart the competing economic, political, religious, and cultural forces that brought it into being and to interpret it as a material expression of the ascending wealth and status of the mercantile class during the period.

This alliance of contextualism and soft semiotics has been marshaled primarily as a reaction against the formalism that generally dominated architectural discourse from the late 1800s through the middle of the twentieth century and that coincided with modernism and its distrust of history. Since the embrace of social history around 1970, formalism and the internal history of architecture have been either rejected as elitist (or worse) or, more benignly, regarded as having discharged their necessary but narrow task so that we can now progress to a richer understanding of architecture in its full multidisciplinary complexity. In the efforts to anchor architectural form in its historical context, form itself has become self-evident and the procedures of formal analysis often tend to be taken as a given.

That a critical inquiry into the interpretive problematics of the properly architectural has been deemed irrelevant by many architectural historians is largely because the current revisionism has tended to restrict itself to questioning the scholarship of the earlier part of the twentieth century. Formalism is rebuffed because it is associated with an ahistorical approach, not because its procedures are inherently flawed insofar as strictly formal questions are concerned. The properly architectural is narrowly identified with the formal, and the latter is understood to be well understood.l

Modern strategies of formal analysis originated, however, not in the heyday of modernist formalism but far earlier in the historically attentive writings of nineteenth-century theorists.

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