The wind through one’s hair.
That hairstyles, the decoration of one’s head, impact on one’s thought was recognised even by religious orders of the Sixth Century. Celtic Christian communities very nearly split completely from their Roman brothers specifically over how their tonsures should be shaped. The former shaved crosswise over the front portion of their scalp, while the latter preferred the circular bald patch at the rear. Maybe this was a question of before whom one chose to be naked: to be exposed before the entire world, ‘God amongst us’ being the theological motif, which perhaps not coincidentally produces a rather wind swept look, or to be revealed beneath a specifically hierarchical and therefore more stable conception, ‘God above’. That we are now familiar (on Christmas cards at least) with monks wearing their hair as if a make-do halo indicates how the argument was resolved. Power goes to one’s head. This is very old knowledge also for, at about the same time, liturgical combs were introduced into church services, especially for ordination, wherein the combing of the hair was symbolic of the ordering and tidying of the mind.
Combing and ordering are weaving.
That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.
One kicks off one’s shoes to walk on some carpets, as if on holy ground. (Indeed, for some communities sacred and domestic space are so closely entwined that it is impossible to wear outdoor shoes indoors.) An infinity in thread; geometry, order, engulfment. Realistic flowers hang upon abstractions, meanders become mandala; a containment of the reality that is to be contemplated. Design is here an intensification of the patterns and rhythms of nature and, simultaneously, a surrender to the impossibility of anything other than meagre participation in such patterns and rhythms, this being a horizontal piece of cloth to be trod upon.
Intricacies and orders that are beyond us but part of us and in us, ecstatically open to us. Sometimes waiting for an epiphany is the epiphany. Ornament at apprehension. The ornamental as apprehension of the abyss, an adornment of the gulf between two worlds. A frame as labyrinthine device by which to slow down, hesitate, and be beguiled. Decoration as interruption of the infinite. An attempt at infinite interruption, so as to coil the undue magnitude of one’s unbroken gaze into a series of small acceptable knots, into knick-nacks, and this and that, and it really might be quite banal and not really worth much consideration until all of a sudden the ornament itself is multiplying at an exponential rate, suggesting that it has become infected by that infinity which it interrupts. Are not those small knots actually little tufted twists of the larger weave? And given the amount of use they get, is it at all surprising how they begin to unravel? The threadbare releasing a larger universe. There is an inscription on the Ardabil Carpet (1539-40 AD), by Hafiz:
Except for thy haven, there is no refuge for me in the world.
Other than here, there is no place for my head.
The place for one’s head and “thy haven” alternate between the present moment, the carpet, and paradise, of which the carpet’s decoration attempts to partake. It is a paradoxical moment of both transcendence and immanence. A pattern both spiritual and trod upon.
The soul of the apartment is the carpet. (E.A. Poe.)
Both Loos and Le Corbusier, those anti-ornamentalists, frequently specified oriental rugs to adorn the floors of their houses.
The use of ornamental decoration for objects of mass consumption is strictly speaking a devaluation. Yet the masses instinctively reach for decorated things and these should not be withheld from them.
A devaluation, Karl Grosz surmises. The ornate is uneconomic, a waste, especially so at the transition point between machine made and hand crafted.
Or it is a luxury, crafts as a visual indicator of wealth. Excessive. This contrary economic argument maintaining its siren call upon a populace.
Thus a moral tone enters. The economic arguments are never allowed to stand alone.
Contested as if it were a symbol and condemned for its paucity of meaning, pattern, ornamentation, adornment is not symbol nor is it without symbol; it is not meaningless but nor does it aspire to meaning.
It is sense, a process, bodily sensation; if it can bring order it can only do so as it is experienced and as it is recalled. Pass it by and the order passes away, dissipates. Yet reinvigorate it with one’s perception and like an electron beneath the scrutiny of measurement, resolving from an indeterminate to determinate state, so the pattern is animated. Is it this instinctual, tactile, bodily perception that keeps us reaching for our baubles and bangles, our swirls and stripes, these overburdened carpets that surely display souls like rich, ripe on the bent branch fruit?
Wealth displayed becomes richness appropriated.
The richness becomes sweetness, an almost pungent exuberance. A vertiginous moment of de-sublimation.
The humble, occasionally mute, maintenance of aura in decorative motif might relate directly to this bodily perception of pattern. It denotes a sacred functionality. Like the Artexed kitchen or an arcadian round of fruits repeated along a wallpaper frieze; here is a residue of awe, a need discovered even at the very beginning of habitation. The need and the discovery seem to combine into an unified function although, having experienced an anxious chase into ‘now’, it can be experienced only in displaced or sublimated form.
As Leibniz put it, ‘we are automatons in three quarters of what we do’, and that the ultimate values, as they are called, are never anything other than the primary, primitive dispositions of the body, ‘visceral’ tastes and distastes, in which the group’s most vital interests are embedded, the things on which one is prepared to stake one’s own and other people’s bodies.
We mentioned war earlier.
Benjamin describes war as the only means by which “to mobilize all of today’s resources while maintaining the property system.” And concludes it: […] is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. It’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
Fear and death.
The battle becomes either ridiculous or dangerous (or both). If one continually pushes fearing and dying elsewhere the battle becomes either ridiculous or dangerous and both. If art can only operate by its very own rarefied rules then, gradually, all life, or rather, all life other to it, becomes squeezed out. And so this feminized, long standing, popular, persistent, sometimes mute or barely articulate, perhaps hardly notices stuff; the decorative stuff is thus said not to be art stuff. And to the extent that decorative stuff is not art stuff then, it seems, the decorative remains in life.
The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his oar, in short, everything within in his reach. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. […] The urge to ornament one’s face, and everything within one’s reach is the origin of fine art. It is the babble of paintng. All art is erotic. […] But the man of our time who daubs the walls with erotic symbols to satisfy an inner urge is a criminal or a degenerate. It is obvious that this urge overcomes man; such symptoms of degeneration most forecefully express themselves in public conveniences. […] What is natural to the Papuan and the child is a symptom of degeneration in the modern man. […] The evolution of culture is synonyms with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use. […] We have outgrown ornament, we have struggled through a state without ornament. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, the capital of heaven. It is then that fulfilment will have come.
The aspiration to organise and shape a purifying radiance.
Loos’ ethnographic point of reference is somewhat skewed nonetheless. He seems to be describing Maori ornament. The men of Papua New Guinea are, traditionally, more likely to adopt face paint and piercing than tattooing. The point was nonetheless strongly enough made for Le Corbusier, twelve years later, to use this same savage metaphor in his manifesto for Purism.
Having confused literal luminescence with the light of divinity and placed this hybrid concept (not at all pure) at the pinnacle of aspiration, so a hierarchy is imposed and qualities both Loos and Le Corbusier professed to admire, the frankness of childhood, the artistic expression of native peoples, are forced into a lowly position. So lowly, in fact, that by the rush of their own polemic these potentially positive expressions become “degenerate” along side the “daubs” and “scribbles” of ornament. For Loos, a cobbler is to be pitied because brogues are patterned. Furthermore, this small pleasure should be allowed because the cobbler is incapable of listening to Beethoven (we are not told why) and nor is the architect able to offer any pleasure to replace such tiny joys.
Architecture is for the enjoyment of those not degenerate, those evolved to some greater state, and yet the architect will actively engage in planning housing for those classes which, it would seem, are not expected to appreciate the work. Here in 1908, housing estate graffiti explained in full detail, even before those estates were properly drafted: unable to find small pleasures in an environment designed for an aesthetic Ubermensch, the degenerate, probably tattooed, must ornament their surrounds; they are compelled to shroud walls in sexual cipher and marks of decorative arousal. Indeed, the Modernist aesthetic of modulated radiance, far from curing the degenerate, far from robbing the criminal of an erotic need to scrawl, finds such urges freed from the confines of public conveniences as a vast array of cubicles are built that may, in turn, be decorated with the art of sublimated Papuans.
To take possession of space is the first gesture of the living, men and beasts, plants and clouds, the fundamental manifestation of equilibrium and permanence. The first proof of existence is to occupy space.
Le Corbusier’s wife, Yvonne, covered their bidet with a knitted cosy. Her husband had placed it in their bedroom but such utilitarian elegance can apparently have no place in here; a space to be filled with soft bodies rather than technocratic efficiency.
To pursue Loos or Le Corbusier so as to blame them for bad housing is, more than a waste of time, faintly ridiculous. More interesting is to accept that both architects gave serious consideration to the state of the housing stock, Le Corbusier especially, and both conceived of an urbanism of separation. That is, distinct zones linked inside a hooping road and rail system. That is, the revolutionary populace were to occupy empty space.
Ornament fills, connects spaces, pushes at borders and often, vulgar detail, clutters, crowds, overspills. (The optical overspilling of pattern, rhythm, whose curves and pauses seem to re-echo beyond itself.) Gombrich describes it as an “amor infiniti”; framing, filling, linking.
Small and simple codes proceed through “graded complication” and can thus easily move towards infinity. Loos clearly distrusts amor infiniti. Infinity is time and it is space. The new architecture hoped for a new time, desiring a break from the past as much or if not more than wanting clean space for its future occupants. Le Corbusier would follow up on this by suggesting that:
the goal of art is not simple pleasure, rather it partakes of the nature of happiness.
This nature is postulated as a transcendent mathematical reality to which there can be no approach via;
the empirical and infinitely impure means that are used habitually.
Yes, Le Corbusier would struggle to bring bidets into bedrooms, as he would to bring natural light into every corner of his buildings, yet to do so was to reduce body and building to machine like functionality. His buildings, raised above ground on pilotis, all become great ocean going ships “swimming for the sun”. Le Corbusier is oft quoted, describing how he hoped to die while swimming for the sun.
So if the human body is encoded in the measurements of the architecture, and Le Corbusier attempted to make this explicit in his use of the Modulor, essentially the Fibonacci scale and golden section linked to a six foot model man, then flesh itself is sublimated within concrete and the concrete is next dissolved in light as a yearned for dissipation in oceanic bliss is enacted by the building itself.
An apparently logical rejection of the decorative on economic grounds can lead to a valorisation of machine aesthetic that consequentially proceeds to a struggle with gnostic duality, typified in the architect’s oscillation between god-like manipulations of base matter (be it actual brick and mortar, the urban experience, or one’s employees) or a frustrated flight to greater purity (away from all the former plus one’s own base matter).
Loos again: “We have struggled through a state without ornament… Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls… It is then that fulfilment will have come.” Struggled; laborious, and without pleasure. And once there is no danger of any idolatrous image appearing, the wall itself becomes an idol. Nonetheless, as we have seen, walls become sullied, dotted with paintings and priapic scrawlings, the plaster cracks, dust accumulates, foliage grows upon them.
Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. […] He who knows that the purpose of art is to take man further and further, higher and higher, to make him more like God, understands that to give art a material function is a profanation.
Loos reiterates the dichotomy of sacred/profane and also underwrites it with a gnostic wish to escape base matter. Unlike Le Corbusier, Loos did not cross over his own borders to make art, except for on those occasions when he designed tombs; Dvorak’s, and his own. The latter is a cube which, Yehuda Safran writes, “acts as a marker; a beginning and an end of architecture.”
White walls reduced to a solid box. It is a statement of disgust. And in the architectural displacement of his own corpse, in his art, Loos, perhaps unwittingly, adopts a decorative form; the dado.
The dado is the cube of pedestal between base and cornice, the plinth of a column, or the lower part of a room-wall when it is faced or coloured differently from the upper part. It is Loos staking out his austere neo-classical lineage but it also a death mask adornment sneaking into a system of classical proportion. Such proportion is still replicated in building after building, decorative scheme after decorative scheme: the orders.
Ordine: rule, class or arrangement.
Indeed, one has imposed order.
The orders were derived from Greek proportions, systematised, especially through Roman architecture andthe canonical Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius. Such dogged reinventions as Le Corbusier’s Modulor only seem to underscore their basic precept of having proportions related to those of the human. Each order consists of a column headed by a capital and entablature, the latter divided into architrave, frieze, and cornice. According to classical theory there are five orders but by Vitruvius’ reckoning only four: Doric, Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian. The Doric is equated with a well built male, with the virile gods, and hence it is suitable for civil and military buildings. The Tuscan is a simplified Doric and might therefore be suitable for second or third division football grounds. The Ionic has a femine slenderness and calm refinement, its gods are Diana and Apollo, therefore often carved with laurel leaf and suitable for buildings dedicated to arts and learning. The Corinthian is taller than the Ionic and yet resembles the slight figure of a young girl.
Interior architecture follows the order of the exterior, either echoed directly in columns or less stridently in pilasters that carry through two storeys of panelling above a base dado. Whether one realises it or not, we are all familiar with the mouldings, if not the proportions of the orders: fascia (a band), fillet (little thread), cavetto (little hollow), cyma recta (upright wave), ogee (wave turned backwards), astragal (ankle bone, ball joint of the ankle, also called a cock-bead), scotia (darkness), torus, (swelling or knot), ovolo (egg). Such evocative bumps and hollows occur not just on the cornice but on lampposts (ornamental or merely ornamented), cups, jars, picture frames, teapots, chimney pots, and indeed on most any kind of vessel. Maybe we are again stumbling upon a distant cave, the cave which was amplified in temple, the temple which demanded decoration.
To decorate is to furnish with adornments and especially so a church with flowers, a street with flags, a house with new paint or paper: decus – oris, beauty: and church, street, house, become beautiful vessels.
To adorn; add beauty or lustre or furnish with ornament.
Ornament in its earliest form maintains a cultic connection, demonstrates an auric lustre, for ornaments are accessories of worship such as the chalice and other sacred vessels, such as altar and sacred books, vessel forms again, and then an ornament is used to adorn someone whose presence confers grace or honour. A wreath of laurel might suffice. And in this archaeology it is only after music, grace notes, that ornament means adorning, being adorned, embellishment for decorative purposes.
But what is the purpose of decoration other than to foreground ornament, and ornament is to mark out the sacredness of the vessel, and how is it to do this but by beauty, and what is beauty for but sweetness and richness? A divinity which is the great blatant and likewise latent beauty of all things. Hence all things are ornamented, hence the proportions of your wallpaper with borders marking out dado and cornice, and hence explicitly name your own domestic space as a temple; no surprise then that we kick off our shoes for if walls become our aspiration then certainly the carpet is the soul, an inhalation.
[…] ‘visceral’ tastes and distastes, in which the groups most vital interests are embedded, the things on which one is prepared to stake one’s own and other people’s bodies. The sense of distinction, the discrimination which demands that certain things be brought together and others kept apart, which excludes all misalliances and all unnatural unions – i.e., all unions contrary to the common classification, to the separation which is the basis of collective and individual identity – responds with visceral, murderous horror, absolute disgust, metaphysical fury, to everything which lies in Plato’s ‘hybrid zone‘ …
Such disgust is an absurd reduction setting out to counter the absurd reduction of death. An attempt to out-stare death.
Sugared death heads, baroque skeletons, flowers on skulls, and candle lit picnics around the grave all to say; reduction is absurd, the dead are alive.
The decorative serves as a hybrid whose job it is to wrap and otherwise prettify the apparent absolute. The patterns around the edges say; yes, the dead are alive, but there is no need for them here. Outside the mutual service of memory the dead are generally supposed to remain dead and, more so, buried. The ornament and pattern are a serving net in which sunshine may be captured and stored. These very same combinations of the pretty and clever treasures may also serve as protection as you move through these decorated streets and ornamented moments; so the festival allows its patterns to be possible, briefly, and the ghosts of the living and the of the dead may share a mutual presence.
If the ornamental was founded on the need for superluminal life, so at each imposition of a conscious and architectural need other sublimatory needs breed from within. Consciousness inevitably becomes architectural. Our never fully illuminated conscious architecture therefore is the actual progenitor of an ornamenting unconsciousness.
The unsettled pattern of an ornament making consciousness and an architectural unconsciousness.
Unsettled pattern of the luminescent dark and blind brilliance.
Any insertion of an object here generates an unavoidable decision over there.
Awareness will be brought into life in collaboration with ornament.
Unable to forget, although forgetful, a constant material function insists that despite cultural abhorrence toward the hybrid, despite the folly of the volute, or the lewdness of egg and dart moulding, this unsettled pattern will continue.
Original first published in Inventory: losing, finding, collecting. Vol.5 No.1 2003.