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Architecture,Ornament andCrime?

a comparison of the Natural History Museum and the Grand Louvre

Joost Oosterwijk & Wouter van den Brand

Architecture, Ornaments and Crime?

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are also the
most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance
–John Ruskin. 1

In the early 1900s, the high tide of art nouveau, Adolf Loos stated in
his essay ornament and crime: “The evolution of culture marches with
the elimination of ornament from utilitarian objects” 2 . Adding
ornamentation to buildings for him felt like an immoral thing to do,
it was a crime to force craftsmen and builders to waste their
precious time on useless objects. Are we, as architects, still moving
towards a modern, ornamentless architecture, vers une architecture?
Is it true that while our culture evolves, we are losing ornaments?
The answer to this is no, when we look nowadays around us.
Gradually more and more architects are using ornament; a good
example of this statement is the Beeld en Geluidinstituut by
Neutelings Riedijk. But in the beginning of the nineteenth century,
there seems to have been a gradual paradigm shift in thought about
the ornament after the writings of Adolf Loos. The decorative and
narrative ornament, was losing ground, and died out completely
during the high tides of modernism, because the great architectural
thinkers of those days were, completely in line with the thoughts of
Adolf Loos, removing ornaments from architectural designs, to free
the public of her individualization. 1. Beeld en Geluidinstituut
by Neutelings Riedijk
The ornament is something that, in architectural design is seen more
often last decade. But is this a revival, did it never leave our
profession, or is it only a shift in form of ornament? By comparing
two buildings from different times, we try to find out, how and in
what form the ornament did survive. The first is the Natural
History Museum by Alfred Waterhouse, build in 1881. In this
building ornamentation is used in abundance. By studying it we
concluded that the ornamentation was used for showing the
function and meaning of the building, the ornament has a narrative
function. 3 But what was the reason for this choice, and how is this
expressed in form? The Louvre surrounds the era of the National
History Museum. In 1204 Philippe-Auguste founded the Louvre
with a castle to defend Paris against the Vikings. In 1535 Pierre

Quote from Works, 9. p. 72 used by Aileen Reid in Ruskin and Architecture. P.279
From Ornament and Crime, Loos, A.
This information was acquired by analysing the building and basic reading.

Lescot designed the still existing part of the palace. From this date
on every great French ruler added his wing, until in 1876 it stopped
with the design Visconti and Hector Lefuel. The palace was first
used as a museum in 1793. Over hundred years later, in 1989, Ieoh
Ming Pei continued working on the Louvre under commission of
the French president François Mitterrand. Pei is a modernist and his
way of designing is as clean as the modernists in the line of Adolf
Loos. But we hope to find the presence of ornaments or ornamental
qualities to prove our thesis.
2. Ornament design sketch by

Ornaments in the Natural History Museum

Richard Owen, the superintendent of the Natural History

Departments at the British Museum, persuaded the government in
1856 to build a new museum especially for the Natural History
Departments. His vision was to build a Cathedral to nature not only
the content, but the whole building had to be related to nature. 4
Ornamentation was the tool to reflect the content of the museum.
This is the reason why all the statues on the east, geological wing,
depict extinct animals and the west, zoological wing, living animals.
Ornament was not only used on the exterior, but in every aspect of
the building. Columns have patterns similar to those found on fossil
trees, vent covers are decorated with dragonflies and beetles, 3. Ornament design sketch by
monkeys climb on the arches, etc. Every surface is decorated with Waterhouse
birds, animals and fishes. Perhaps the most dramatic ones are the
freestanding creatures that look down from the first floor. Not all
the ornaments are statues and reliefs, the ceilings are decorated with
panels on which plants are painted. Together they form an
encyclopedia of plants in an era when specimens of plants from
around the world came to Britain, sparking an explosion of interest
in botany and horticulture, with new glasshouses and public parks
springing up all over the country. 5

To be able to see the role of the ornaments in the Natural History

Museum, one has to see it in its context and time. The Natural
History Museum was designed and built between 1864 and 1881. It
originates from the mid-Victorian age, a time where the ‘novelty’ of
the buildings was very important. The main interest of architecture
by the educated public was not about style and form but of the
extent in which the building was conveying its purpose and status. 6
The Victorians were looking for architecture with moral and 4. Ornament design sketch by
See webside Natural History Museum,
The Terracotta Revival, p. 14

practical messages. They judged architecture as a barometer of
urban society and most educated people were also trained, by books,
journals and classes, to make this judgment. The Mid-Victorian
designers found ornament, a good media to give ‘meaning’ to a
façade. Though the name of the company on the façade would have
been a simple solution, sculptural representations of the activities
were thought to be more subtle and artistic. “Narrative decoration was
considered particularly desirable on essentially new building types, giving
hospitals, public libraries or railway stations a status traditionally
regarded suitable for churches, town halls or country houses.” 7

When the Everard Printing Works in Bristol was finished in 1900 by

Henry Williams, the police had to control the enormous crowds,
who wanted to see the ornaments on the façade for two days. It
comes as no surprise that in the time when Richard Owen and
Alfred Waterhouse wanted such an extremely, both readable and
representing building, would provoke a similar reaction. But the 5. Ceiling panels of the
question is; how did Alfred Waterhouse design such a building, Natural History Museum
beginning with the ornament itself? Alfred Waterhouse himself
drew all the ornaments by hand and was regularly checked by
Richard Owen on biological and anatomical correctness. All the
ornaments were made of terracotta. Waterhouse was the first who
used terracotta in such extent for cladding and ornament; this was
admired by the architectural press because the production was
more industrial than stone carving. Also terracotta was a material
that could resist the heavily polluted air of London of 1880 and was
resistant to fire, which made it extra useful for the cladding of steel.
Furthermore he used the terracotta because it gave him the
opportunity to use color and gave him more freedom in the use of
ornament. The construction of the building was made of brick and
steel. The only construction left in sight is the steel roof construction.
The rest, steel columns and brick walls, were clad in terracotta. The
construction was not important for him; it was the terracotta that
told the story.

In our quest to find in what style Waterhouse designed the building

we found not one but a combination of styles. The Magazine of Art’s
wrote in 1881 shortly after The Natural History Museum was

“This building is not a classical one, although is has Classical traditions in

its balanced symmetry…Nor is it a Romanesque building,
notwithstanding the varying recurrence of the round arch. It is not a
Gothic building, though having steep gables and an arrangement of roofing
which are eminently Gothic in motif as they are effective and picturesque

The Terracotta Revival, p. 14

in outline and grouping. It is, in short, a Victorian building and no other,
designed upon principles which have informed the great works of all time,
but adapted to the wants, using the materials and employing the methods
of the age in which we live.” 8

This mixture was unusual for Waterhouse, who was a strong

supporter of the Gothic Revival, but he might have been very much
influenced by the existing plan of Fowke. Captain Francis Fowke
had won the competition for the building originally, and designed a
museum, in a more or less renaissance style. This style was
traditionally used for museums in that time, for example The British
Museum by Smirke. But Fowke suddenly deceased and Alfred
Waterhouse was asked to finish the designs of the building. The
main principles of the ground plan remained but Waterhouse used
the gothic style to be able to integrate the ornamentation in the
design. Gothic made in his view a better and coherent framework
for the extensive use of ornamentation. Waterhouse was in this
being influenced by writers like Pugin and especially Ruskin.

Ruskin was one of the most influential writers of Victorian

architecture in that time. Not only of what he said but also because
his writings were not only directed to the critics and collectors, but
also for laymen like for instance; his parents, visitors to galleries and
exhibitions, “the first generation of a new middle class, uncertain how to
judge and to value art, eager for an education of the eye in a visual a visual
aesthetic for there times.” 9 It was not only the broad public he chose
but also the way of writing, drawing and speaking, very persuasive,
as if he was on a mission. Around 1850, there was no shortage of
architectural publications, and all these publications were full of
drawings. The drawings were often diagrammatic elevations,
lacking any representation of modeling or finish. Ruskin used a 6. Ornaments drawn by
drawing style not only showing the surface and finish but also other Ruskin
expressive qualities conveyed by design and form. These drawings
were by his Victorian audience looked upon as a great innovation
and improvement.

It is not surprising at all, that traces of Ruskin work are visible in

Alfred Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum. At the age of
twenty-three Waterhouse traveled through Europe with his old
study friend Thomas Hodgkin, who wrote down; “He (Alfred
Waterhouse) was entirely under the influence of Ruskin and
communicated his own passionate admiration for Gothic art and a perfect
detestation of that beastly Renaissance” 10 . During his travels he visited

Magazine of Art, 4 (1881), 36, quoted in Alfred Waterhous by Cunningham, C.
Ruskin and Architecture p. 30 by Chitty, G.
Unpublished autobiographical memoir by Tomas Hodgkin, quoted in Alfred Waterhouse 1830 – 1905.

as many buildings described by Ruskin as possible. Three years
later he made a necessary pilgrimage to the new museum at Oxford.
The architects Deane and Woodward had good contact with Ruskin
and the building was, after the pleas of Ruskin, build in a Gothic
style. 11

It was partly because of Ruskin’s ideas that people designed and

accepted the use of ornaments to such an extent. Ruskin wrote
about ornament in the introduction of The Stones of Venice, one of his
famous architectural publications: “Little by little, it gradually became
manifest to me that the sculpture and painting were, in fact, the all in all of
the thing to be done; that these, which I had long been in the careless habit
of thinking subordinate to the architecture, were in fact the entire masters
of the architecture; and the architect who was not a sculptor or a painter,
was nothing better than a frame-maker on a large scale… The fact is that
there are only two fine arts possible to the human race, sculpture and
painting. What we call architecture is only the association of these in noble
masses, or the placing of them in fit places. All architecture other than this
is, in fact, mere building.” 12

This can be seen in the Natural History Museum, the building is a

framework and it is the sculptures and paintings that made it the 7. Ornament drawn by
well remembered building it is. Ruskin

Alfred Waterhouse 1830 – 1905 p.17
Works, 8, p10-11, quoted in Ruskin and Architecture p.323

Le Grand Louvre et les Ornament
Even though there might have been already something sixth or
seventh century in the area called the Louvre, may it be a hunting
lodge or a small castle, builders under command of Philippe-
Auguste started with the fundaments of the Old Louvre, a fortified
tower, in 1204. Accept for a huge and brilliant weathercock, no
ornaments were to be found in this building. An enormous west
wing and immense hall were added by his grandson, and for almost
hundred and fifty years the Louvre was left in that condition.
Charles V found his palace too much reminiscent of the Bastille, and
decided that the tower needed a serious upgrade. The walls were, 8. Model of old Louvre
the tower increased, the exterior made more graceful in line and
form, the towers given various shapes, and ll kinds of sculptured
figures put over the different stones, the whole enclosed within the
city walls and beautiful gardens laid out around the palace. All
these changes were designed by head architect Raymond du
Temple. After the death of Charles V, in 1380, the Louvre was left to
the hands of time again for another hundred years. François I,
started with the demolition of the great tower, with the thought in
mind of creating a representational palace, but he had too many
wars, oppression and intrigues on hand. So after a couple of years
the work ceased, and the Louvre was once more left to decay. In
1540, work was commenced under command of Pierre Lescot. The
fundaments were so solid that Pierre Lescot decided to use them for
the new constructions. The fundaments are the only part remaining
of the original building, nowadays. In 1561 the new west wing was
finished and decorated with sculptures by Paolo Ponzio and Jean
Goujon. All work was stopped again after the death of Henri II,
Catherine de’ Medici wanted the Louvre to be habitable. Work on
the building was stopped, the sculptures left unfinished, and all
activity was concentrated upon the preparations for habitation. The
complex looked very strange because of the different architectural
influences. In 1610 Lemercier continued the work of Pierre Lescot,
he added extensions and destroyed the old circular stairway. In
1665 Louis XIV laid the first stone for the façade renovation, the
work was finished in 1670. Fifteen years later, in 1680, Louis was
more interested in Versailles. And when Perrault died in 1688, the
palace was once again abandoned. In 1854 the design of Visconti
was carried out and the Louvre was connected to the Tuileries in the
North. During this restoration a great deal of the old buildings were
destroyed. In general, the whole addition has, as has often been
noted; “an appearance of theatrical decoration without accent or depth, a
luxury without reason, a lack of harmony, and a manifest disproportion
between the framework and the ornamentation.”

”Ornament is the figure that emerges from the material substrate, the
expression of embedded forces through processes of construction, assembly
and growth. It is through the ornament that material transmits affects.
Ornament is therefore necessary and inseparable from the object. It is not a
mask determined a priori to contingent or involuntary signification (a
characteristic of al forms). It has no intention to decorate, and there is in it
no hidden meaning. At the best of times ornament becomes an “empty
sign” capable of generating an unlimited number of resonances.” 13

Ieoh Ming Pei is very much fascinated by geometric shapes, to such

an extent that the geometric shapes start to acquire an ornamental
quality. From his early projects on; like the National Center for
Atmospheric Research in Boulder to his latest designs, show the
same strictness in using the simple shapes. His architectural
language consists of cylinders, cubes, and pyramids, which he
manages to form into harmonious compositions. The architectural
objects in itself can therefore be seen as ornaments in the
architectural - or urban context. Looking to the design of Ieoh Ming
Pei in this more urban perspective, first of all one notices the
interesting reference to the formal French gardens. Again Ieoh Ming
Pei shows his fascination for geometric patterns, in his almost
picturesque translation of the old Renaissance French garden. The
triangular ponds, filled with water, connected by paths in between,
share the same serene beauty that can be found in the garden of
Versailles. Secondly, when understanding the Avenue des Champs-
Élysées as an interior in the urban tissue of Paris, it is easy to see the
addition of the pyramids as a new urban ornament, in the already
existing chain of urban ornaments.

“Against the symbolic interpretation of culture by Postmodernism, the

dynamic nature of culture requires that buildings each time define their
own ground and develop and internal consistency. It is precisely through
these internal orders that architecture gains an ability to perform relative
to culture and to build its own system of evaluation. These orders are
therefore not about pure architectural expression, removed from culture of
the kind that was dismissed by postmodernism. They are not about being
pure, but about being consistent. They do not aim at being disconnected
but rather contaminated with culture.” 14

Looking at the interiors by Adolf Loos one would not believe that
he is the same architect that wrote “Ornament and Crime”, stating
that using the precious time of labor for ornaments and useless
decoration, was close to a criminal act. The elaborate use of
materials and the fine detailing of all the objects in the interiors, are
just as time consuming, and require the same amount of handicraft,

From The Function of Ornament by Moussavi, F p.8
From The Function of Ornament by Moussavi, F p.8

as the creation of ornaments. The natural decorative qualities of the
materials where cleverly used to enhance the already sophisticated
and beautifully connected interior spaces in Adolf Loos’s designs.

The same could be said about the interior of the Nouveau Louvre:
Ieoh Ming Pei uses marble, beton architectonique and other very
expensive and labor intensive process to create a very clean interior
space. The glass pyramids, the large centered pyramid in particular,
with its 603 diamond-shaped and 70 triangular glass panels of 21
millimeter on a hand-casted stainless steel construction, are very
precisely detailed, and took a lot of effort and craftsmanship by
Eiffel Construction Metallique and RFR Ingénieurs. The fine
detailing gives the whole structure a very elegant and transparent
appearance, a decorative quality on the central square. The interior
spaces of the Nouveau Louvre share the same elegance as the
pyramids outside. It could be said, that there is an ornamental
quality to be found in the details.

One should be able to see, this less-is-more way of thinking and the
fetishizing of the smooth and uniform detail, as a form of
ornamentation. References to historical architecture and technology
in the final design and the materiality of the design, become the
ornament. As Venturi notes in his book “Learning from Las Vegas”:
“Modern ornament has seldom been symbolic of anything non
architectural, since the Bauhaus vanquished Art Deco and the decorative
arts. More specifically its content is consistently spatial and
technological.” 15

The case of the double-dealing-duck and the-insincere-decorated

shed. The pyramid says: “Hey look at me, I am a pyramid, but
means I am an entrance to the Louvre.” The museum on the other
hand screams: “I am a palace.” Both of the buildings share the same
ambiguity, translated in different ways. The most interesting part of
this case is that the pyramid, due to the great marketing and
commercial success of the Louvre, has become an entrance for a
museum of which most people have forgotten its history as a palace.
The ornaments or ornamental qualities in both of the buildings add
to this ambiguous problem.

Summarizing the last paragraphs, one could say, that there actually 9. The new intuitive meaning
are many ornamental qualities to this building. But most of them are of the pyramid, as an
working on a different level; it is more the emotional variant of the entrance for art museums
ornament that can be found. References to French gardens, Egyptian
pyramids could and should be seen as decorative elements in this
plan, but on the ornamental level they are more, they have acquired

Learning from Las Vegas Venturi, p.114

an aura, a deeper meaning. This emotional level is also reached by
the detailing in both the interior and the exterior. The exquisite
detailing and intelligent use of materials creates such a clean
atmosphere that it is impossible not to be astonished. Also can the
project as a whole be seen as an urban ornament; adding pyramid
shaped glass beads to the already existing building chain, linked by
the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.


We see that ornamentation was not simply a useless adding to a

building, only existing because of tradition. It has had and still has a
function. In the case of the Natural History Museum it is clearly to
see that, in line with the Victorian thought, ornament was used to
show the content of the museum, or even that the building is part of
the content, it shows and educates. By the influential writings of
Adolf Loos this narrative form of ornament disappeared. But
ornament is more. Farshid Moussavi writes in Function of
Ornament that ornament works two ways, one is Décor and
communication. This is the novelty of ornament so clearly visible in
The Natural history museum. The second is Effect and Sensation. 16
This has more to do with the psychology of architecture the theory
of how we experience architecture. Patrick Healy states in his essay
Ornament Now: “For the body to recognize forms it posits that things are
animate in expression, a process which gives to architecture a double
problematic, as it belongs to what Freud calls ‘das Unheimliche’, itself
rooted in a homology of repetition and an abstraction of the sensible
10. Interior Designed by
towards the suprasensible” 17 . He uses the example of the change of
Adolf Loos
heartbeat when entering different spaces. Moussavi states: “It is
through ornament that material transmits effects” 18 . He sees ornament
as a tool which helps to express the material and the architecture.
This is a very different way of looking on ornament than that Adolf
Loos did. Loos critics were directed to how ornament influenced
society, but ornament does that because it is narrative, symbolic.
Ornamentation in the form of Effect and Sensation does not work that
way and is more directly related to the building and its beauty. We
can also see that the expensive use of materials in the interiors of
Loos his buildings is ornamentation in this form. One of the famous
architects who was aware of this aspect of ornament is Louis
Sullivan. His ornamentation is organic and exists of leaf and flower

The Function of Ornament, Moussavi, F. p.6-7
Oase 65 Ornament, Healy, P. p.55
The Function of Ornament, Moussavi, F. p.6-7

like figures, but are not plane representations. His ornamentation
works on a different level, it works as an effect to experience his
buildings in a more organic way.
Pei does not use narrative or organic ornament, but he is looking in
his oeuvre for a way of expression that makes the experience of his
buildings unique. He finds this in the use of geometrical forms and
patterns. These geometrical forms can be seen as ornaments in a
sense that it channels the effects he wants and that they are not
formed because of functionality. The glass pyramid of the Grand
Louvre is for example an ornamental object. The form is not
functional and it is not that he only made it of glass to make it as
invisible as possible, because why did he not put every thing
underground. No, he wanted to put there an ornament which
expresses his mostly underground addition to the Louvre. So this
less tangible, but deeper and more emotional, but less or not all
narrative form, of ornamentation survived during these dark ages for
the ornament. But how did this narrative form of ornament return?

Many architects interpreted the writing by Robert Venturi and

Desise Scott Brown in the late sixties and seventies, as permit to
move away from Modernism’s functionalism and to resume
designing in a more narrative way. Instead of Mies van der Rohe’s
“Less is more”, Robert Venturi stated “Less is a bore”. He explains
this statement, in his critique of Modernism and manifestos for
Postmodernism, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. We argue
that the ornament in one way of another survived during
Modernism. The writings of Robert Venturi in combination with the
individualization of our contemporary society caused another
gradual shift, this time in favor of the ornament.

l’Ornament est mort? Vive l’ornament!


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- Moussavi, F. & Kubo, M. The Function of Ornament Harvard
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Reading, Spire Books Ltd.
- Healy, P. (2004) Ornament Now, Oase Ornament, nr. 65
- Cunningham, C. Prudence Waterhouse (1992) Alfred
Waterhouse 1830 – 1905, Oxford, Clarendon press
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London, Faber and Faber
- Reeh, H. (2004) Ornaments of the Metropolis, Siegfried Kracauer
and modern urban culture, London, The MIT Press
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from Las Vegas, London, The MIT Press
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Contradiction in Architecture, New York, The Museum of
Modern Art.
- Architectural Theory, from the renaissance to the present,
- Foster, H. (2002) Design and Crime, London, Verso