For most of the 20th century the addition of ornament to architecture was considered a crime. After several decades of dull unadorned buildings, architects and clients started to hunger for the decorative elements of bygone eras. This revival came as part of the postmodern movement during the 1980s. Since then the use of ornament has been more accepted but still viewed with suspicion by the modernist establishment.

Ornament was my way into architecture. When I started working for my father during school and university holidays it was ornament which was my primary role. I had an interest and a facility for it from an early age and I became know within the office for drawing out full size details of Corinthian capitals, keystones, swags, chimneypieces, decorative ceilings and anything which demanded ornament. My output was known humorously as ‘the pretties department’ - a label I initially found patronising as it seemed that the ‘proper architects’ were doing construction and running contracts and I, like a child, was quietly drawing frivolous and unnecessary decoration. But I grew to love the label as I started to understand the importance of ornament and for that matter, prettiness too.

Here are some images which I drew over the years.

A few weeks ago I chaired the Traditional Architecture Group’s first round table discussion and we chose ornament as the subject. As panellist’s we had Svante Helmbaek Tirén, a renowned architecture theorist with an interest in ornament and Sandy Stoddart, perhaps the greatest living figurative sculptor. The discussion covers many aspects of ornament in architecture with valuable contributions from Robert Adam, Hugh Petter and George Saumarez Smith. Due to the coronavirus we had to do this as a zoom discussion instead of live, which was a pity, but it did have the advantage that many people from far afield could join us which would not have been possible otherwise.

It was a fascinating discussion and we covered a whole variety of topics. The questions which we grappled with included:-

  • Why was the modern moment so hostile to ornament?
  • Is ornament just about the play of light on a surface?
  • Does ornament need to follow historic precedent?
  • How does dirt on buildings affect ornament?

We have made this into a podcast which can listened to by following this link, you are in for a treat!

Francis Terry

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