Historiography, Present and Morphology

Dr. Peter Massin

PhD thesis

DOI: http://10.25651/5.2022.0001

Rigorosum 01.07.2021.
Link to event: https://www.uibk.ac.at/fakultaeten/architektur/news/phd-defence-peter-massin.html

This dissertation investigates the object-like ornament in architecture and examines its historiographic and contemporary constitution in design practice. The work is therefore both theoretical and applied. The topic of the dissertation, the ornament, is positioned at the heart of architecture and thus also amidst a cultural and technological debate, the social significance of which has become increasingly noticeable in recent years. The field of investigation spans a broad historical contextualisation and current postdigital tendencies in architecture.

Assuming the ornament debate as a whole and seeing in it a cumulative process of exploration, standardisation, interpretation, and critique, one cannot avoid the observation that most creative processes, products or cultural phenomena can be declared, unproductively, as ornament or as ornamental. Whether one argues for or against ornament depends entirely on the zeitgeist, hence implying that the cultural object ‘ornament’ is not exclusively a disciplinary object. Ornament is discussed in philosophy, sociology, literature, music, rhetoric, philology as a whole, even in psychology, archaeology, and of course art and architecture; this list is not exhaustive. Consequently, this dissertation describes a variety of ornamental phenomena and evaluates their validity in a contemporary discourse of architecture. Nevertheless, this poses a problem for the architectural, object-like ornament: if the ornament can be anything and the metaphor itself becomes the object, if not defined and differentiated, it turns into a concept without an object. Architectural theory shadowed the transposition of the concept of ornament into other disciplines, yet after a first phase of problematisation, the ornament in architecture lost its object-related describability or operationality. In this case, architecture lacks the precision and the consensus on what constitutes architectural ornamentation.

The work covers the period from the Vitruvian credo (i.e. actually its first translations in the 15th century) to the present, followed by a retrospective focus of a historiographical preoccupation with ornament in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This specific time frame has a significant influence on the theoretical constitution of ornament. A second period of observation is prospective, extending from the end of the 20th century to present day. It evaluates ornament in postdigitality, but also discusses digital working processes in architecture and their connection with ornament. An authoritarian association of the ornament to its historical motifs is thus disentangled point by point. New phenomena that have emerged in architecture as a result of changed design and production methods, but also new genres, are woven into the ornament debate. Core references range from the writings of Gottfried Semper, Owen Jones, Alois Riegl, Henry van de Velde, Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier, Ernst Gombrich, Bernard Cache, Greg Lynn, Kent Bloomer, Lars Spuybroek, Antoine Picon and Mario Carpo.

The innovative kernel of the dissertation lies, among other things, in the derived theoretical and applied description of ornament, which is often biased, to develop the ornament in architecture as a tangible term and concrete object. The concept and the object systematically tie in with the theoretical debates of the past. The functionalities that can be identified as ornament, as well as the formal characteristics of contemporary architecture, are identified and named, informing both the theoretical as well as the practical argument challenging common misunderstandings and generalisations in conceptualisation and application. In addition, the technical implications in the field of AR and especially in the field of performant architecture not only question the supposed axioms of ornament, but actively contribute to the further development of the theoretical and design-practical potential of ornament. The work attempts to be a standard work for ornament in architecture in practice and education. A decisive achievement of the work can be seen in the fact that it makes the design-theoretical constituents and contemporary examples operationally applicable as a tool for designers. The work has not exclusively been written from the point of view of a researching architect. As it reaches out to its target audience in research and practice, it seeks terminological and design-theoretical clarity in this often misunderstood and pejoratively connoted subject area. It attempts to end a long phase of ideologically polemical perception (post-Loos) with a historically consistent and present-oriented objective description. If this offer is accepted, the exclusivity of ornament and crime can, finally, after more than 100 years, be relegated to historicity.