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Lesson Plan #10: Life in Ornament
Throughout history, ornament has been used to transform the built environment into a friendlier and more empathetic place. Not to teach this higher role means to not value part of our centuries-old cultural history.
By Miguel Córdova-Ramírez
July 23, 2020
Editor’s Note: This is the 10th in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. Salingaros is the principal editor of Christopher Alexander’s 4-volume book The Nature of Order. See Lesson Plans #1 through #9 at the end of this feature.
Introduction: Learning architecture in the developing world
Studying architecture, or even having the ability to study in a university is a privilege. Especially in a country like Peru, where approximately 20% of its population lives in extreme poverty (Redacción El Comercio, 2019). However great the wishes or illusions may be, economic circumstances – the price of monthly tuition or pensions or social constraints – and especially the low level of the public-school education system will dictate the possibilities that a person has for study.
In other words, we cannot talk about similar opportunities when, in the morning, a child has to walk two kilometers (1.2 miles) to go to his school and, in the afternoon, work until nightfall in the street to help his family financially. That child has much greater obstacles when competing with others for a place to study at a university to become, for example, an architect.
The teaching of architecture in Peru must be understood in this context, with young people coming from different economic and social realities, and where only a few understand that being able to study at a university represents a great social responsibility.
In that sense, one would think that the most logical approach would be to teach architecture while thinking of how to make sure that architecture can deal with these social inequalities. The goal should be to allow all people – with their various differences – greater accessibility to their cities and to their built environments. It would be unfair to deny that there are efforts currently being made in that direction. Nevertheless, people not only seek a place to live, but also look for whether that place – as it is said in this region of the world – brings life.
Giving life to a building
Understanding how something – from an object to a building – can give life has to be understood as something more than what is mechanically possible. This point has been explained very well by Christopher Alexander in The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life (2001). The job of creating buildings with those special qualities can be summed up in what he said: “All our work has to do with the creation of life and that the task, in any particular project, is to make the building come to life as much as possible.” In that sense, it can be inferred that teaching architecture should be understood as the practice of teaching how to make buildings come to life.
From my experience as a student, one of the obvious elements in the teaching of architecture in my country that can increase the levels of life of a building, and thereby raise the living structure in the city, is the handling of ornament. Yet ornament has been considered an unusable, unnecessary, and even irrelevant element. This thinking has caused us to forget its psychological and social value – especially for a society like mine with a vast and extensive cultural heritage. It is through interaction with ornament that one can perceive the life of objects and buildings.
Understanding life as understood by Alexander is not an isolated event. In different parts of the world there exists a similar view, and Peru is no exception. The societies of ancient Peru used a concept of the Quechua people to express this connection. For them, there was a force or energy that animated and ordered every being, from human beings, to the mountains, to utilitarian objects and cooking vessels. In other words, some force “gave life” to all things. The Camac was that vital breath that animated everything that existed (Neira, 2015; Flores Quelopana, 2016). Ornament in a dress as well as in a building is the manifestation of its Camac, of the vital energy that animates it, whereas its suppression takes away that life.
The universal meaning of ornament
Around the world, ornament was traditionally applied to endow meaning to every element, object, and tool made by human beings. Regardless of the location or time, ornament has been present in construction, tools, and utensils. Innumerable ways of ornamentation were developed in the search to imbue the things we use with an order, hierarchy, and legible information (Salíngaros, 2016).
Before the development of the printing press, styles and methods of decoration through the use of ornament in buildings were based on a progressive accumulation of traditions, religious influences, and technological advances – as in ancient Peru. The printing press enabled wide dissemination of all the ways ornament could be promoted as patterns, in the form of “manuals” and, above all, among the builders (Batterham, 2015). This began with the first several editions of Vitruvius’s The Ten Books of Architecture, followed by various publications throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in France, Germany, England, and Italy; for example (Jones, 1856; Racinet, 1885-1888; Zahn, 1831).
Ornament has been, from the beginning of the building trades, a fundamental element. For this reason, in one of the first texts on architectural theory by Vitruvius, ornament is highlighted as its main component. However, at the beginning of the 20th century the importance of ornament was questioned, and then rejected in great deal of new construction under the excuse that it was restrictive and limiting. Its “elimination” actually consisted of its reduction to pure color criteria, painting large surfaces with uniform primary colors, but more frequently in grey or white. In other words, it is not that ornament was removed, it was reduced (Kubisch & Seger, 2012). This reduction is what many authors consider as the deprivation of its communicative capacity and, above all, as the aesthetic impoverishment of the built environment (Alexander, 2001; Krier, 2009; Salingaros, 2006).
Reducing ornament is a step backwards
Ornament is not only built on a utilitarian foundation, but also serves a purpose for social, psychological, and even spiritual enrichment. The use of ornament in construction – beyond being an expression of design that generally encodes a lot of visible information (Salingaros, 2006) – can be understood as a manifestation of biophilia (Kellert, Heerwagen, & Mador, 2008; Salingaros, 2015). Notice the central role of ornamentation in traditional religious architecture everywhere. Ornament has provided human beings with the same positive perceptions and feedback to which our ancestors were accustomed in a natural environment, only now it is sought in artificial, built environments (Salingaros, 2016).
Choosing not to teach how the ancient Peruvians gave “life” to their buildings through the use of ornament is not to value the legacy they left behind. Furthermore, it ignores the social responsibility of the few young people who have the privilege of studying in a university to improve everyone’s living conditions.
Throughout history, ornament has been used to beautify buildings and their façades, but that is not its exclusive use. Ornament has also been used to transform the built environment into a friendlier and more empathetic place. In other words, the utilization of ornament was and is still motivated by a rational purpose. Not to teach this higher role means to not value – and ignore – part of our centuries-old cultural history.
In conclusion, I consider that the reduction of ornament in more recent Peruvian building culture represents the reduction of the “life” built into those buildings – by eliminating the Camac so important to ancient Peruvians.
Miguel Córdova Ramírez is an architect and co-CEO at SN Arquitectos in Lima, Peru. firstname.lastname@example.org
Acknowledgment: Article originally written in Spanish: English translation by Arch. Dagmar Calleja, Mexico City and Montgomery, Texas.
Alexander, C. (2001). The Nature of Order, Volume 1: The Phenomenon of Life. Berkely: The Center for Environmental Structure.
Batterham, D. (2015). The World of Ornament. Hohenzollernring: TASCHEN.
Flores Quelopana, G. (2016, Setiembre). Kamaq y no Kamay. Una eurocéntrica traducción. Retrieved Agosto 21, 2019, from Libros Peruanos: http://www.librosperuanos.com/autores/articulo/00000002384/Kamaq-y-no-Kamay.-Una-eurocentrica-traduccion
Jones, O. (1856). The Grammar of Ornament. London: Day & Sons.
Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J. H., & Mador, M. L. (Eds.). (2008). Biophilic Design: The theory, science, and practice of bringing buildings to life. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Krier, L. (2009). The Architecture of Community. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Kubisch, N., & Seger, P. A. (2012). Ornaments. (P. Delius, Ed.) Potsdam: H.F.Ullmann Publishing Gmbh.
Neira, H. (2015). Civilizaciones comparadas. Lima: Cauces Editores.
Racinet, A. (1885-1888). L’ornement polychrome. Deuxième série. Cent vingt planches en couleur or et argent. Paris: Firmin-Didot.
Redacción El Comercio. (2019, Abril 10). Pobreza monetaria y pobreza extrema en el Perú disminuyó en el 2018. Retrieved Noviembre 25, 2019, from El Comercio: https://elcomercio.pe/economia/peru/pobreza-monetaria-pobreza-extrema-peru-disminuyo-2018-noticia-625267-noticia/
Salingaros, N. A. (2006). A Theory of Architecture. Portland: Sustasis Press.
Salingaros, N. A. (2015). Biophilia & healing environments: Healthy principles for designing the built world. New York: Terrapin Bright Green, LLC. Retrieved 21 de Junio de 2020, https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/biophilia-healing-environments/
Salingaros, N. A. (2016). Forma, lenguaje y complejidad: Una teoría unificada de la arquitectura. Madrid: Ediciones Asimétricas.
Vitruvio, M. (1995). Los Diez Libros de Arquitectura. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
Zahn, W. (1831). Ornamente aller klassischen Kunstepochen. Berlin: Reimer.
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(click on pictures to enlarge)
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