The Value of Ornament: Cultivating Regionalism Through Adornment

Andrew Lord

This thesis recognizes ornament as not simply an excessive accessory, but an innate human desire to imbue objects with beauty and meaning. Ornament’s prominence throughout disparate architectures regardless of culture, era, or class intimates its instinctive nature. Despite modernism’s efforts to dispense with it, ornament subconsciously returned by turning buildings themselves into sculptural forms, or by embellishing facades with louvers, exposed structure, and surface patterns. However, these forms of decoration fail to provide many of ornament’s historical benefits and are limited in their expressive capabilities by deferring to function. Traditional ornament was capable of breaking down imposing building masses to the human scale, allowing people to project a personal or regional identity onto a building. Not only have designers forgotten how to accomplish this, but an entire system of economics disincentivizes such architecture. The commodification of real estate has turned architecture into another tool for capitalism to extract profit. Neoliberalism has found an ally in modernist principles by embracing the ideals of modularity, efficiency, and rationality as a theoretical framework to manufacture a globalized architecture. The architectural individuality of localities has largely disappeared, leaving citizens unable to identify with their own cities. This thesis seeks to dispel modernist myths and posits ornament as a means to reintroduce regional identity in an increasingly homogenized world. Theoretical discussion is supplemented with case studies documented through photography, illustrating the consequences of ornament’s exile through economic and political narratives. Without a proper understanding of the societal influences that constrain the profession, architecture will continue to neglect the natural human desire for ornament.

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