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There has been a schism at the heart of modern architecture for a century and a half. That schism centres around perhaps the biggest and most skirted-around issues in the theory and practice of the profession — ornament and morality. Wandering around the gloriously absurd secular chapel to the memory of a fictional Essex woman “Julie May Cope”, I wondered whether we are finally beginning to come to terms with that split which has riven the history of modern architecture or whether this curious little building — a collaboration between artist Grayson Perry and architect Charles Holland — actually just confirms the depth of the divide.
The cultural context is complex, but well worth clarifying because it infects the work of every architect and every artist working today. In the mid-19th century John Ruskin declared that architecture had a moral duty to be beautiful but that, without moral purpose, all art was doomed to fail. The architecture of the Victorian era, he believed, was shallow, commercial and ugly, an ugliness rooted in the values of the society that made it. This condemnation of Victorian art and architecture needs to be seen against a tradition in which ornamentation was expensive. It involved hours of craft and skilled labour — the more elaborate a building, a bag or a box was, the more expensive it would be, and the more status it would bring its bearer.
Then the industrial revolution turned everything on its head. Suddenly machines could churn out decorative items ad nauseam and there was no way, at least from a distance, to tell whether something had been crafted from the finest materials by the most skilful craftsmen or whether it was a generic artificial material moulded by a machine into a mass-produced commodity. If ornamentation was to become a mass-market cliché, what now would be the indicator of class? Well, the lack of ornamentation, of course — simplicity. The slow transition to what we now recognise as modernism had begun.
Ruskin’s enemies were the aesthetes, the lily-wearing, velvet-waistcoated bohemians of Chelsea who responded that art had no other moral duty than to be beautiful. It was precisely through its beauty that it exerted its impact, bringing loveliness into the world and elevating everyday life with a moment of the sublime. What happened over the next half century or so was abstraction. In art this implied a move away from representation towards the idea that the artwork was an autonomous object.
Yet what did it mean for architecture? Can a building be abstract? In a way, that was the essence of the modernist project and it entailed the stripping away of centuries of accreted language to create a nakedly minimal architecture in which every element expressed its functional purpose and anything extraneous was removed.
Yet those extraneous elements embodied an entire history of architecture, it was through ornamentation that buildings (or rather architects) communicated with the public. Ornament talked of expense and care but also of meaning, history and function, it highlighted through mouldings and gables, through scrolls and columns the role of the elements of architecture in both functional and symbolic terms.
The public liked ornament. And when it was gone, they missed it. In the commercial language of architecture, ornament never went away, it was there in the much-derided carriage lamps and fanlights, the stained-glass porch windows and Victorian scroll door handles of mass market construction and the DIY store. And by the 1960s, the intelligentsia was beginning to miss it, too. When Eero Saarinen designed the CBS Building in Manhattan, it was one of the most stripped-back towers in the city — a dark black façade of granite. The chief executive had his top-floor office lined with timber panels and had a huge, ornate fireplace put in.
Architects did something similar, sticking Palladian porticos on modernist towers. Philip Johnson, one-time promoter-in-chief of modernism, stuck a Chippendale top on his AT&T Building in 1978. The same thing had, incidentally, happened under communism decades earlier with Stalin’s declaration that modernism was bourgeois. It culminated in the magical workers’ palaces of the Moscow Metro. Except with the irony removed.
In the late 20th century, ornament was reappropriated for modernity — this time through that fuzzy filter of irony. And so postmodernism was born, a sophisticated coded system of symbols which asserted a knowing distance from the actual cliché of ornament. The postmodern style was characterised by a frank admission of the inevitable modernity of architecture and design through the application of a veneer of decoration — a classical façade on a building or a cocktail cabinet, a pediment, some columns.
This allowed architects and designers to continue convincing themselves that they were still modern but that the layer of postmodernity merely added to the complexity of the language. It was a game: I know that you know that this is ironic — so it is fine, we have shared and acknowledged each other’s sophistication. Pediments and columns might have gone their own way but think of antler coat hooks or a tree-trunk bench with Chippendale chair backs and you will see this layer of kitsch and knowing irony still informs design.
In “A House for Essex”, a holiday home commissioned by Alain de Botton’s “Living Architecture” — a project to allow people to stay in contemporary architecture — Perry and Holland abandon that veneer of irony. Julie Cope may be a fictional Essex everywoman but the complexity of the story and the sheer dedication to realising it as represented by art and architecture make this a rather moving space. And “moving” is not an adjective that can be easily applied to the clever tricksiness of postmodernism.
The house is an absurd melange of Finnish stave church, Thai temple, arts and crafts mausoleum and fairytale gingerbread house. It is clad in deep green tiles depicting a kind of slightly obscene “sheela na gig” and crowned in weird futuristic versions of pagan fertility symbols. Its interior sends more mixed messages. There is a postmodern, John Soane-inspired, stage-set façade complete with a pair of Juliet balconies from the bedrooms, a floor that would have fitted in a Viennese secessionist house and vaguely Adolf Loos-influenced furniture. Looming over it all is the motor scooter which, in the story, ran over Julie and killed her while its driver was delivering a curry. It has been repurposed as a chandelier, its spots illuminating the lurid (and rather magical) tapestries illustrating tableaux from Julie’s life.
Here, Holland and Perry have done what others have not been able to do. They have assimilated ornament into the design. It is not just applied as a layer but subsumed into the architecture. The distance is created through the make-believe of the narrative — it is, after all, a temple with no religion to a character who never existed.
That removal of the barrier, the irony which alienates and is intended to show how smart we are for understanding, is a critical juncture. The building sits somewhere between outsider art, high culture and the most sophisticated postmodernism. Ornamentation, of the surface at least, has become a kind of cliché in recent years. New technologies have enabled architects to engage in what their Victorian forebears indulged in, the proliferation of a layer of cheap, machine-made decoration. Birmingham library by Mecanoo, Leicester’s John Lewis store by Farshid Moussavi, the Nottingham Contemporary gallery by Caruso St John, each has featured a veneer of ornament applied to the façade but each architect has also ensured it goes no deeper. This is an appliqué decoration which leaves the minimalism of the modernist box intact. It is not, of course, a purely British phenomenon — Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron got there first with their 1997 Eberswalde library, its concrete surfaces etched with the images of photos by Thomas Ruff, but there does seem to be a particular horror vacui emerging in contemporary British architecture, a re-emergence of the Victorian taste for the decorative.
The question is whether architects continue employing decoration as a thin layer of ornament applied to an architecture that has remained fundamentally unchanged for a century — or whether they will be prepared to synthesise ornament into their buildings to create something new. Because that would be something.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
Photographs: Ted Thai/Life Images Collection/Getty Images; Jack Hobhouse
Slideshow photographs: Jack Hobhouse; Alamy; GE Kidder Smith/Corbis; Bruno Morandi/Getty Images; Ullstein Bild/Getty Images; Ulf Boettcher/Getty Images/Look; Anthony Weller/View/Corbis; Ted Thai/Life Images Collection/Getty Images