The ornament as a battlefield. The responsibilities of architecture in modern terror. Case studies: Gaudí, Loos, Le Corbusier, Mies.

From its origins modernity has privileged the intellectual work against the mechanic, the invention against doing with the hands, the individual against the collective, the “genius” against the artisan, the project against the process, the instant against time. From the mid-nineteenth century until the end of the avant-garde after World War II -that is, in full coincidence with the rise and triumph of imperialist capitalism- the battlefield of that demand was ornament. The “structure” was considered as the sincere expression of the intellect, while the ornament became something added, a mask that distorted the truth of the structure and that had to be dispensed with. The famous writings of Adolf Loos, a symptom of modern thinking in so many aspects, not only architectural, entitled “Ornament and crime”, is the culmination of this process. But the criminalization of the ornament and those who practice it does not occur in a neutral world. On the contrary, it is part of the period in which some of the greatest horrors were experienced by humanity, from the colonialist genocide to the extermination camps, continue without pause. In a time of devastation -in an era dominated by the prefix of negation dis- (ent in German, as for entartung)- the disornamentation promoted by the avant-garde is not a whim, but an essential -structural- part of the great processes of dispossession set in motion by capitalism emerged from the second industrial revolution. To eliminate that element of intermediation between the being and the cosmos that is the ornament is a basic, well sinister part of the processes of terror. The avant-garde and architecture in particular, championed by dis-ornamentation, have a great responsibility in the horrors of the 20th century. Nothing could be further from the word “culture” that pervades the title of this master’s degree.

The course will present the other side, the dark side, of the history of architecture in the period of triumphant capitalism. Two schematic lines mark that story. One, defeated (but we’ll see how far), defender of the ornament: Pugin, Ruskin or William Morris, who passes by theorists like Owen Jones or Riegl, by currents like, in general, Art Nouveau, or by artists so different like Matisse or Rodin, and that undoubtedly culminates in an architect like Gaudí, epitome of hyperornamentation. The other, dominant, enemy of ornamentation, which includes theoreticians like Semper, but also all the pseudoscientific writings on “degeneration” ranging from Max Nordau to the exhibition organized by the Nazi authorities on the Entartete “Kunst”, and whose culmination is constituted by the figures of Loos and Le Corbusier, each in his own way. Two currents are not parallel but intertwine incessantly.

In concrete terms, the course will be organized in four parts that will focus the work of four architects: Gaudí (hyperornamentation), Loos (disornamentation), Le Corbusier (cleaning -o nettoyage) and Mies (paradoxical return to the ornamentation through the material). The written and constructed works of these four architects will be analysed according to the order of the title of the course: architecture (that is, analysis of the work in particular), theory (that is, analysis of the models and sources both written and visual) and criticism (that is, reception of the work between contemporaries and posterity). Everything will be tackled in the broadest of contexts.

With the collaboration of the Gaudí Chair:

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The Adolf Loos House at the Michaelerplatz in Viena decorated by the nazis in 1937

All Theory, History and Culture Subjects