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Ornament on trial. (Royal Academy Forum).

Ornament, reviled in avant-garde circles since Adolf Loos associated it with crime, remains an important force in artistic production in many cultures. The Academy Forum invited artist Tom Phillips to present his canonical Summary Treatise on the Nature of Ornament, which is printed in full here with responses from British Museum anthropologist John Mack and five practising architects. Texts edited by Jeremy Melvin.


1 Ornament is born of a primary and elemental urge. It tries to make sense of the world and make the world make sense.

2 The energies that give rise to conscious art are first found in ornament. In many cultures art takes no other form.

3 Ornament is high art hidden everywhere.

4 Ornament is the stylistic signature of time and place and peoples.

5 Ornament mirrors the structures of cosmologies (or is even cognate with them in the sense that cosmologies may be born out of the repertoire of ornament). The rings, stratifications, branchings etc in nature inform ornamental and cosmological systems alike.

6 Ornament is a universal language that is transmitted by contact, trade and knowledge: its essence is universally understood even when its sources of symbolism have become arcane.

7 This essence is the visual grammar of the ornament and has priority over any reference it encodes.

8 Such universality is made possible by the relatively small generative syntax of ornament.

9 These syntactical elements are all paraphrases of nature; stripe, hatching, dot and the whole treasury of primal signs are all present in nature.

10 The first marks known to have been made by a human being (on a piece of ochre 77 000 years ago in Southern Africa) echo cracks in mud or figurations in rock.

11 These elements, as soon as they are divorced from nature, become abstractions.

12 The elements (again reflecting a common process in nature) can be both manipulated and emphasized by linear or field repetition.

13 Art and mathematics are also cognate in such abstractions. First, in the act of abstraction itself and second, in the system developed as counting or mnemonic devices. As mathematics can be stored in the form of ornament, so ornament is secreted in the potential of mathematics.

14 Nature is plundered as the pattern book of ornament and one in turn authenticates the other.

15 Just as art is hidden everywhere in ornament, so science also finds many of its formulations already inherent in ornamental practice. The implications of map theory, game theory, topology, the fractals of chaos theory, have all lurked in ornament, awaiting their elevation to science.

16 The language of science acknowledges with the names it takes up, such as grid and trellis, the prior presence of ornament and its intuitions.

17 Both the macroscopic and the microscopic structures imaged by science (as, recently, in the Hubble telescope and via electron microscopy) corroborate many of the intuited devices of ornament.

18 Science reciprocates by giving such ornamental devices new resonances (the helix, buckminsterfullerene) and, by playing the games of ornament, adds to the visual thesaurus (for example with the Penrose pattern).

19 The binary system which governs information technology is one of the most ancient staples of ornamental practice, as is the mode of visual generation by pixels in mosaic and weaving.

20 What ornament guesses at and expresses about an imagined world must be there for the intuitions of ornament are our visual wisdom.

21 Thus ornament is not only the mirror of observable nature but an explorer of its deep structures.

22 By this commandeering of the forms of nature, ornament tries to banish fear. It signals reverence towards nature yet, simultaneously, asserts its conquest and mastery of natural forces.

23 Even when a culture creates demons, dragons and powerful spirits it both uses and deflects their power by incorporation in ornament.

24 The gods and mysteries of a culture protect its goods and artefacts in the form of ornament: as a kind of visual spell.

25 Thus nature and myth serve as well as are served by ornament, which in turn serves form.

26 It serves form by asserting surface. In both graphic and relief modes, it enriches surface with a secondary potential of light and shade.

27 Ornament serves strength with strength. It is not an afterthought as is decoration. It is not merely applied but becomes one with the object it helps to create.

28 It is neither an indulgence nor an extra but an imperative and is achieved through transformation. It does not act cosmetically.

29 To inhabit the world of ornament, representation, narrative, or script must be subject to a transformation. They must exist at least at one or more removes from the merely referential.

30 These transformations of nature into pattern, of narrative into schema, of figuration into device are what gives ornament its authentic character.

31 Wherever such transformations subjugate the literal or naturalistic modes of representation, the resulting ornament takes on and absorbs the power and energy of its sources.

32 In that sense, ornament contains a residue of the earliest magical or animistic beliefs.

33 Illusion in all its modes and manifestations is the enemy of ornament. Abstraction is the heart of the matter. It is the pole to which ornament urges itself, even while assimilating the figurative. In the history of ornament it is descriptive or illusionistic figuration that is aberrant.


34 There is hardly a record of any group or community discovered, or known by its excavated traces, which had not developed a practice of art.

35 Such a practice would always include ornament, whether other means of expression had been devised or not.

36 In one society in Africa where no aesthetic enterprise had been identified, later fieldwork indeed revealed an art form, but one that produced no artefacts. The group in question adopted the markings of their cattle as their expression of art, discussing the aesthetic merits of living ornament. Animals were admired (and valued for transactions) according to an aesthetic consensus.

37 This conceptual version of ornament can be regarded either as an extreme case of primitivism or, just as convincingly, as the ultimate in sophistication.

38 Ornament is thus adaptive. It adjusts to the mode of life of its makers. Whereas a settled community might express itself in expansive architectural elaboration, a nomadic group must reduce its repertoire of ornament to portable forms such as tent hangings and animal accoutrement etc.

39 Ornament knows no absolute of scale. The same devices and systems maybe found simultaneously on a palace and on the earring of a woman passing that palace.

40 This flexibility, as ornament moves easily through all possible registers of scale with all variations of texture, kinds of material and colour, is one of the secrets of its disdain of class and gender and thereby of its survival.

41 From this we see that ornament has strategies to act both via central stations and portable transmitters. Its signals and reminders are omnipresent in society and not restricted to specialist locations like museums and churches. The manhole cover outside a cathedral may rival anything within.

42 In a settled society, each dwelling will contain many aspects of the discourse of ornament, including traces of neighbouring or exotic cultures.

43 By virtue of its ubiquitous character, ornament penetrates all thresholds of attention. Ornament assimilates with labour, but is assimilated without effort.


44 Ornament endures: it is robust in the sense that from a surviving fragment found in sand or soil its larger programmes can be construed.

45 By this means, as well as by virtue of its transformational treatment of reference and representation, it escapes the iconoclast.

46 With cunning, it avoids the attention of ideologues and fanatics. The most radical art can, in the guise of ornament, bypass the critique of political fundamentalists as in the case of the suprematist interior of Lenin's tomb, visited by millions at a time when its equivalent in paint ing was totally suppressed.

47 Ornament is memorious. It acts as a house of memory uniting us with nature. It carries this information in the particular mode by identifiable visual quotation of transformed reality, and, in the general mode, by embodying essences such as plantness and animalness.

48 It stores our knowledge of the principles of growth and form (forking, branching, spiral) and diagramatizes our experience.

49 It demonstrates this knowledge by variation, selecting a motif in nature as a recurrent theme to be played upon. One thinks of the acanthus, or bamboo, or (in Tibet), the tiger skin.

50 It embodies our philosophical enquiries as to the nature of nature; exemplifying in this instance Plato's Theory of Forms.


51 Since ornament harnesses formal energies in nature, it has political, social, spiritual and even military potential.

52 This is shown by its serving the hierarchies of many disparate cultures in their heraldry, emblazonments, and their signals of rank and allegiance.

53 The devices of ornament can amplify, by doubling and redoubling or other types of repetition and variation, these degrees of status as in heraldic quarterings and the chevrons of rank.

54 Ornament is thus not only the embodiment of visual order, but conveys the paradigms of social order.

55 Being morally disinterested, its elements can serve any society and any faction which appropriates them. It can on occasions serve opposite purposes (as with the swastika, or cross).

56 Ornament is not nostalgic, nor does it trade in the picturesque.

57 Where it has grown out of functional reference it can be historic, as in the use of crenellation in heraldry. Where function recedes the associated ornament, in formal use, veers towards abstraction and, in more casual use, towards decoration.

58 Ornament can also be recapitulatory and can thus signal stylistic revival as in the case of Neo-Classicism,

59 Ornament is rich in its modes of infiltration into the visual repertoire. An introduction of an exotic variant can cause a tidal wave of imitation in every aspect of design (Art Deco, Japonaiserie). Such an introduction can he made via graphic design (Mocha for example), or industrially produced artefacts (as with Guimard).

60 In both the cases of Mocha's posters and Guimard's Metro designs, mechanical reproduction served to echo the reiterative mode of ornament itself.

61 Ornament can therefore have a dispersed existence, experienced cumulatively.


62 Like nature which supplies its sources, ornament can decay and, like society which gives it energy and purpose, it can become decadent.

63 Sometimes by competition with itself, ornament when acting in a critical vacuum, becomes overripe, creating decorative nightmares of intricacy or overblown pustular monsters.

64 It can by this be an indicator of social ills or spiritual malaise.

65 This can occasion a flight from ornament (Shaker carpentry, the severity of Loos), although what appears a denial merely reasserts that structures, of themselves, constitute, in their refined state, true ornament.

66 Ornament, unlike decoration, operates subtractively as well as additively, reducing objects to their necessities. Its ambition in such cases is timelessness as when it attempts to make the primal cup, or (in the case of Christopher Dresser) the ultimate toast rack.

67 It cannot of course truly escape time since each epoch has its own characteristic version of timelessness.

68 The mode (so to speak) of subtractive addition is attained by the concealment of construction. The fully ornamented pyramids of Giza must be imagined with their original cladding of smooth marble: magical objects with not a brick in sight.

69 The obverse of such a principle (as in bridge building) is the ornament of exposed technology.

70 Music is the ultimate art form where technology is exposed. It is built before your very eyes and ears. It also serves as an exemplar of ornamental processes, both in its largest structures (thematic variations, canon, fugue) and in its details, such as turns and trills.


71 Standard and necessary human activities involving making, such as engineering, building or pottery suggest, at only a small remove from their most workaday formats, the possibility of ornament. The stone wall, with a simple variation, becomes for example the signature structure (echoed in beadwork) of old Zimbabwe culture.

72 Even where it exhibits great apparent complexity, ornament is parsimonious of means. Its basic processes are simple; ordering, echoing, accumulation, accretion, listing, arranging, repeating.

73 The great degree of intricacy that can (equally with simplicity) characterize ornament may only be sustained relative to bold and balanced forms like the paddles from the Solomon Islands brought back by Captain Cook, whose elegant severity is covered by a mesh of tessellated carving.

74 Intricacy can never hide poverty of form: it will only (as happens with much decoration) compound that poverty by insistent echo.

75 Intricacy often takes the form of a reiterative version of simple elements: in this it also behaves like music whose arpeggios and repeated figures are structural. Elaboration of this kind provides the sole content of much current minimalist music, where time is the surface to be covered.

76 Intricacy in ornament induces wonder by its celebration of time. It is akin to a mantra or repeated prayer, visible devotions registered in meticulous toil.

77 It is not the province of the old (especially in epochs and places lacking spectacles), and therefore embodies youthful energies.

78 Technical procedures in themselves give rise to extensions of ornament. In the making of mosaic, the patterning of the tesserae precedes any subject motif. Fine lace grows on, and develops out of, its own necessary web.

79 In this ornament echoes the technologies of nature, whose strategies give rise to particular visual possibilities (in the manner of the imbrication of fish scales, or the interference patterns of butterfly wings).

80 Such structural processes can be enlisted either to emphasize the formal motifs or to provide a counterpoint. This occurs, for example, in all processes that have systems of layering or links, such as weaving or bricklaying.

81 Even accidents of process can be subsumed into the aesthetic of ornament, for example craquelure in ceramics, and the patch repairs on Kuba cloths.

82 Error and accident are gracenotes of ornament and can lead to creative variation. Perfection is not always sought. In the Middle Ages it was thought that where there was a risk of not making a mistake, some error had to be introduced: since perfection was the province of God alone.

83 Ornament is, in essence, communal even when performed by an individual. It is the work of time's orchestra. It is in a profound sense performance art.

84 It is no accident that so many of ornament's highest manifestations are anonymous. While examples can of course be assigned to a named maker, ornament in general tends to resist any cult of personality.

85 Ornament disregards gender. Women in many societies may have the monopoly of artistic expression (like the Ndbele of Southern Africa) or have complete creative areas, such as pottery, which only they can practise.

86 On a practical level some feats of artistic enterprise can only be performed by women. Lacemaking calls for delicate fingers. There are even carpets too fine for any adult to work that have to be made by young children.

87 The hiding of art in ornament has caused historians to search for women's artistic achievements in the wrong areas, in the pictorial arts.

88 Such erroneous researches result from too restricted a definition of art itself. Basketry, textiles, pottery and glass still lie outside the scholarly discourse of art history, whose false construct of artistic hierarchies is, luckily, now being eroded.


89 The delimited nature of ornament makes it unsuitable for the carrying of human emotions. Love and passion go into its making rather than its meaning. Ornament itself is not soft hearted: this is the province of decoration, its sentimental cousin.

90 The great schism between art and craft is one of the symptoms of a hierarchical view of art, and a particular casualty of modernism.

91 In the West, ornament has been debased as a result of the flight of art from craft. Art hears off its richest forms and denies credit to its erstwhile practitioners.

92 The use and usage of the word craft, with its second division feel, has a lot to answer for.

93 Many fine artists who so define themselves would in earlier centuries have been rugmakers and designers of wallpapers rather than disappointed painters and sculptors.

94 The disciplines, traditions and refinement of process of such a craft would have given them a safer scaffold for the scaling of artistic heights. The fabricators of ornament stand securely on each other's shoulders.

95 The last of the riches to be pillaged by fine art from ornament was its greatest treasure, abstraction.

96 The complete vocabulary of abstraction had always been present in ornament, where love of the wayward figurations of stone and wood complements exploration of the strict geometries of honeycomb and crystal.

97 Entire schemes of ornament have been derived from the search for abstract diversity in nature as in certain marble church interiors like that of Sta Maria dei Miracoli in Venice, where stone is framed by chosen stone, some veined or striped, others cloudy or turbulent.

98 In such a scheme, God is the featured artist in his own place of praise.

99 Such examples of the aesthetic of abstract expressionism were endorsed and improvised upon by painters of the Renaissance like Fra Angelico, and Andrea del Castagno.

100 It is often forgotten that a large part of the production of major artists (Michelangelo, Verrocchio, Holbein, Velasquez even) was of ornament, much of it now lost (and even considered in its time as ephemeral), as in the provision of festive installations, and banners.

101 Ornament is the laboratory of aesthetics: what has often been deemed experiment in fine art has been practised and developed first in ornament.

102 Abstraction had its home in ornament (as it still has in many cultures). Once the abstract became also a province of fine art, ornament found much of its occupation appropriated.

103 Abstraction which had thrived and been appreciated for millennia while in the safekeeping of ornament, now became a contentious factor in modern Western art.

104 Ornament has thus in the West found itself relegated to the world of craft, a term itself now debased in relation to the announced aspirations of fine art.

105 Some advanced cultures like Japan have resisted this division in varying degrees. Many Islamic states for reasons of religious proscription have no such debate.

106 Ornament thrives because of its communal nature. It largely escapes both the elitist and financially speculative worlds.

107 It is the sole area of art where the disgraced terminology and ideals of Marxism continue to be relevant.

108 Ornament cannot die. It invents new projects and can spring up in unexpected areas. The most recent of these is the work, often ephemeral, of graffiti artists. Without reward (and often at the risk of the opposite), these prove the imperative of ornament for ornament's sake.

109 The use of calligraphy in ornament is as old as writing itself and the graffiti artists of the late twentieth century especially in New York brought calligraphic expression to a new height comparable with the best of Islamic letter-based art or mediaeval illumination.

110 Ornament however, including the calligraphic type, has its own mode of communication. In that it has meaning it bypasses the customary modes of the literal or metaphorical and inhabits Dante's final category of signification, the anagogical, where form embodies truth directly, making as it were a spiritual equation.


111 False ornament is easily spotted. Its principal misunderstanding is a lazy contradiction of form. Other clues are an evident design tautology, a use of literal illustration or unassimilated narrative.

112 In respect of nature the ultimate ornament is camouflage, whereby we return human artefacts to an abstraction which merges with natural randomness.

113 For all other purposes, ornament tends to advertise the materials it uses: their characteristic hardness, malleability, transparency, each of which commands a relevant technique.

114 No material is excluded: the recorded range is already complete from dung to gold.

115 Any new element produced, from a bullet case or bottle top to plasticated telephone wire, can be appropriated and will generate its own stylistic possibilities.

116 Materials held precious by any culture are featured in ornament, often disposed emphatically as a punctuation of the design.

117 Yet ornament is by and large democratic. It may use, but does not need, precious material.

118 Ornament is parsimonious even when it seems to be opulent. It thrives on constraints and relishes limitations.

119 Rules and systems lead it to its best inventions; just as the discipline of verse liberates the poet.

120 It recycles materials as well as motifs and discovers itself by their appropriation. The most recent acquisition of the African Galleries of the British Museum is a chair made from guns surrendered in amnesty.

121 Ornament has no vanity. It is comfortable at all points on the social scale and at any degree of utility or anonymity.

122 As art is hidden in ornament, so ornament itself can thrive unadvertised in unconsidered locations. It can hide in the practice of gardening or flower arrangement.

123 Thus the most intricate manifestations of ornament may occur in humble or serviceable objects such as a loin cloth or a comb.

124 Objects of virtue in such utilitarian forms have long escaped the notice of the self-styled world of connoisseurship.

125 These tend to be works of the hand (still our best implement). In earliest times, the pinching of a pot rim in pie crust fashion or its serration by the fingernail, brought a pot to conclusion via ornament.

126 The moment such markings made by one potter were compared with and preferred to those of another, the great engine of art started up. Aesthetics (which must be considered one of the most primitive disciplines), criticism, patronage, commerce soon get under way on a road that leads to schools of style, salons, academies and our great museums.

127 The whole recipe of art was present at its birth in ornament; form, line, tonality, material, disposition, colour.

128 Colour is of itself ornament. Cultures have sought nature's brightest hues of mineral, dye, feather or beetle carapace for use in ornament: others have restricted the range of colour to serve sobriety or to retreat from excess.

129 Ornament responds to any extension given to the colour range by technology (as in enamels, stained glass). It is, by tradition, experimental.

130 Thus there are hierarchies of colour. A colour by virtue of its rarity or difficulty of production (Tyrian purple, Iznik red, lapis lazuli) can have the status of a precious material and be used accordingly.

131 The quest, however, for precious materials can be a snare leading to deformation of ornament by gratuitous enrichment eg, encrustation of gems and so on. This is a typical trap of decoration.


132 By decoration we mean what is added to things but is not germane to them by structure or significance, and the use of motifs and treatments that are not formally digested and lack transformation.

133 Decoration is parasitic in that while it piles up on or spreads over its host object it does not add to its aesthetic value. It is simply cumulative in that it has no more reason to stop than to start.

134 Decoration quotes ornament. For this reason no distinction is usually made between the two.

135 There is a grey area between ornament and decoration where one or other strives to compensate for poverty of form. This is usually an indicator of an uncertainty or fracture in social life. In such times decoration, where panic often takes the form of elaboration, tends to prevail.

136 Whole museums and collections in the Western world dedicated to the decorative arts often contain little or no true ornament (as in the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House) and hence no art.

137 Such collections amass objects made for the rich and powerful in which virtuoso craftsmen have sacrificed taste on the altar of decorative complexity, to make as it were a metaphor of the detailed fuss their idle patrons demand around them in life.

138 Such museums of the meretricious mislead the public by promoting decoration above ornament. It is as if they elevate the diseased above the healthy body.


139 The arguments of this paper attempt to drive a wedge between ornament and decoration.

140 Decoration is palliative. Its banishment, as anyone moving into a dwelling too ripe with decor knows, can be an act of aesthetic piety.

141 A paradox of this process is that, when such decoration is removed, ornament, in the form of just proportions and integral architectonic features etc, is revealed. These elements may well be more elaborate than what covers them.

142 Another kind of paradox arises where the quality of ornament relates directly to the value of its components. This occurs because in any aesthetically healthy community, it is the best artist who will be entrusted with the finest materials. Thus the true hierarchy is aesthetic and artistic even when it appears to be material.

143 Opulence has its climactic assertion by total coverage; the golden dome, the jade princess. Thus at the point of highest opulence we find the greatest simplicity.

144 The ornamental mode of such coverage is achieved by the type of articulation and amplified by faceting appropriate to the material, which in turn patterns the light that falls on the object.

145 Articulation also finds its models in nature. The perfect Platonic form of the necklace (and in Africa used as such) is the spine of a snake.

146 Human physiology is also reflected in ornament by its intervals and proportions. The breath, the measure of step, the scale of hand and the canons of anatomy all provide human resonance.

147 Thus ornament even when it seems to be cold artifice is, at its most successful, ultimately humanistic.

148 It reinforces at all points our kinship to the world.

149 Lacking the emotional and intellectual agendas built up by fine art, ornament represents the untrammelled celebration of our creativity.

150 Ornament avoids such agendas by its communal practice and evolutionary character. The refinement of a Japanese basket is less the result of individual temperament than a collective aesthetic produced over generations.

151 Its solipsism is innocent. We cannot via ornament praise ourselves without at the same time reverencing nature and celebrating whatever intimation of a divine order our varied cultures possess.

152 A life without ornament is unimaginable. It is one of the preconditions of humanity.

153 Though we lack the earliest clues of human artistic activity, the first setting of stone by stone, bone against bone must have signalled the dawn of articulate consciousness.

154 Ornament is the visual world at play. However serious the matter and however ambitious the mode, all great ornament has wit.

155 Ornament transforms with joy what lies in its path, what it serves and what it uses.

156 Ornament is the praise song of humankind to the world it has made in terms of the world that it found. It vivifies the manufactured world to make it one with nature.

157 Whatever may be said about ornament here or elsewhere, of a philosophical nature, the child who makes a daisy chain has grasped its principles completely.

RELATED ARTICLE: John Mack, keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum, comments on Tom Phillips' Treatise from an anthropologist's perspective.

By taking the impulse to ornamentation as the progenitor of other art forms, Tom Phillips makes a bold case for redressing the characterization of ornament as superfluous. Many of his statements have a universalizing character: thoughts on glyphic markings on earliest African rock art, on the wall patterning of Great Zimbabwe and on cattle-keepers' interests in ornamentation in eastern Africa. My discipline of social anthropology investigates whether cross-cultural perspectives add to the argument or whether the references are just decorative devices.

Phillips' Treatise makes a wide case rather than analyses of specific circumstances. He has less about semantics, because semantics are context-specific trying to recover it goes into individual cultures. By being more specific I hope to amplify his thoughts, and will stray beyond Phillips' characterization of ornament to look more generally at pattern-making and decoration. After all, most languages group words we tend to separate, like decoration, adornment, jewellery, pattern, style, embellishment. In Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, the word tavaka covers all this, only making a distinction when the decorative idiom is figurative and a word derived from Malayo-Polynesian origins -- sari -- is used. In this context, sari is the generic word for a picture.

Ornament and theories of ornamentation

Western theories and philosophies of art are almost always about representational art. If we look at world arts, however, non-figurative ornamentation probably predominates. Ethnographic collections are largely decorative; the decorative arts comprise different kinds of artefact type from the painting or the sculpture which is the focus of Western art historical interest, such as mats, pots, baskets and textiles. My single aphorism, derived from the anthropologist Alfred Gell, is that pattern, decoration, ornament, attaches people to things. Gell called this the 'Technology of Enchantment'. He talks of how reluctant children are induced to bed by covers and pillows festooned with spaceships and soft toys. Bedding in neutral spaces -- notably hospitals -- tends to be unpatterned (and it can't just be a matter of the laundry arrangements), where that used at home is virtually always patterned in some way. Pattern links us in more intimate ways to our surroundings, in a way that undecorated surfaces do not, If o rnamentation is a fundamental element in world artistic traditions, and a fundamental aspect of human visual cultures, it is because at root it is linked to questions of identity -- individual identity and collective or social identity.

The ringing phrase 'mere decoration' implies that it is optional and subservient to form. But all the cultures around the world which engage in decoration are not doing so because it is an afterthought. Unless decoration has a function, it can only be described in terms of primal urges, and arguments about primal urges are fruitless. Even so primal urges do not survive unless they are useful in some way. However you cut the cake, you come back to decoration. Even those deliberately undecorated spaces, whether in contemporary architecture or Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania who blacken car bumpers to take away the effects of the chrome, acknowledge the personalizing, socializing nature of ornamentation by -- in effect -- refusing it. To ascetics, the relationship of people to things which decoration negotiates, can impair the importance of another relationship -- that between people and God.

If ornamenting an object is a choice which bears out the fundamental importance of ornament in socializing the visual world, it endorses Phillips' observation that ornament is a primary and universal visual language. And it also implies that the relationship between its presence or absence is dialogical. The relation between the choice to ornament or not to ornament gives the greatest insights into the nature and purposes of ornament. To understand why some cultures produce ornament, it is necessary to look at others which do not use ornament, and at those cultures which produce ornament in some contexts but not in others. If there is a gap in Phillips' argument, it is here.

The evolution and naming of patterns says much about the social nature of ornament. Very often, the critical point is not the adaptation of forms from nature into an ornamental system, but the ascribing of a name to geometric experimentation, which frequently arises from a perceived visual likeness to something like a knot, grass or smoke. In these cases the relationship to nature comes at a linguistic rather than a visual level. In this sense, nature is not plundered by the pattern book of ornament, as Phillips suggests, nor does 'one in turn authenticate the other'; rather, the naming of patterns is akin to giving people nicknames in our own culture.

This perhaps helps to explain why different cultures can use ornament for different purposes. Two possible poles can be shown in the Kuba people of Central Africa, and Madagascan culture. In Kuba culture, spiritually empowered surfaces are rubbed flat and those in domestic buildings are adorned. In Madagascar, tombs are the sacred spaces and they are adorned; homes are not, except for the centre pole. It is made from the hardest wood and remains even if the rest deteriorates: the same word, teza is both the name of the wood and the word for a style or funerary or commemorative monument. What links both is an explicit division in the use and absence of ornament to suggest specific social purposes.


The Upper Room

Chris Ofili at Victoria Miro Gallery


Surfaces acquire the delicate figuration and insistent repetition of tropical walnut panels, a subtle paradox which combines with the more overt opposition between orthogonal and curving geometry to turn the act of entry into an invitation to participate. Warmth, comfort and familiarity seem possible around a promised hearth.

Inside, the threshold expands Into a liminal space between art and reality. The hearth-like lamp multiplies into stages of a journey and casts the naturalistic striations of the walnut into darkness. Only its odour remains to mingle with the glow, and an aura of non-specific devotion supersedes the promised familiarity. When the main spate materializes, paintings assume the role of lamps in the antechamber, weaving colours with varied and sensual forms whose emotional and psychological power transcends anything natural form and geometric order can anticipate. Devotion acquires specificity without ritual.

Yet the paintings owe their aura to their placement within an architectural order of regularity and symmetry. Pure form and pure emotion co-exist. Photographs: Lyndon Douglas.

Shada Pavilion

Henna Nadeem (artist), Nick Hanika (engineer)


Like Bramante's Tempietto (a connection spotted by John Outram), the pavilion offers a single contemplative moment, within a garden surrounded by housing. Shade, stone and seats merge into a unified experience of art, architecture and function. Laser cutting gouged the pattern of leaves out of the Cor-ten steel sheet, a savage process with surprisingly delicate effect.

From below, the laser cut steel becomes a protective canopy of unfathomable form.

Photograph: Sal Idriss.



Norman Foster described the totally inappropriate application of decoration as 'lipstick on the gorilla'. More fruitful Is to look for the inherent beauty of each subject, which expresses clarity of purpose without need for decoration. Photograph: Wilkinson Eyre.


However there is a case for enrichment of detail where it does not detract from clarity of purpose. At Stratford Station the base connection of the arching structure is highly ornamental, but at the same time entirely functional. Its cast steel base is a sculpted form of structure. Photograph: Wilkinson Eyre.


In bridges, the principle is to create alight, minimal structure. At the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, exposed technology becomes ornament in itself, and the cue for further ornamental play with lighting which transforms the structural form into patterns on the water and sky. Photograph: Graeme Peacock.


The Magna Project has several kinds of ornament: pavilions whose form comments on their themes, the highly ornamental redundant industrial structures recalling the building's steel mill origins, and new red skin, which suffuses inside with an ember-like glow. As Sant'Elia claimed, only with raw, naked and violently coloured materials can a truly modern architecture have decorative value. Photograph: Edmund Sumner.



Iconography is one means available to architecture to convey narrative. Banished under Modernism, it has something to do with decoration and ornament. The ceiling of Duncan Hall at Rice University in Houston, Texas, depicts iconographically the Big Bang, which happened when 'something' and 'nothing' discovered each other, an example of how ideas spring from collisions of opposites.


In his hypostyle, Serlio appreciated the figure of the forest as one of the most enduring architectural themes. The forest is an analogue of infinity; everywhere is the same until you find a stream, immediately evoking water flowing into a valley, an analogue of civilization, a moment caught in the swimming pool of this house, Sphinx Hill.


This promenade fluvial always has the same constituents, a source, the valley, the delta and the sea. It is found in Chinese cities, Indian temples, Le Corbuiser's house for Dr Curruchet--even, diagrammatically, in the London terraced house, and celebrated in the design for the Judge Institute, Cambridge.

Photographs: John Outram Associates.



Each material evolves its own patterns of use and iconography. Through the extraordinary skill and craftsmanship of the extrusion process, metal has turned into the scale of joinery, but it can lead to the implacable repetition of a typical curtain wall.


St Martin's in the Fields develops a relationship between the activities of the surface and those which take place below. A pavilion rises above ground which leads from the public realm into the structured rituals of the subterranean realm, Including a cloister and chapel. In them materials become plastic assuming a cleansing purity of form and light.


The roundabout at the south end of Lambeth Bridge now recalls the ancient notion of a sacred grove. Tall, angular metasequoia trees contrast in their verticality with undulating topography of the ground, symbolizing life by choreographing space and to some extent, time, as the trees grow and change with the seasons. Photograph: Peter Cook/VIEW.



C. R. Mackintosh in architecture, like James Joyce in literature, realizes a universe in art, inserting detail and fragment into a hierarchically integrated whole, which one can use to enrich architecture so that we know precisely where and what it is. Reflecting the outside into the interior. Mackintosh transforms experience into the decorative, transcending the immediate bounds of function. Photograph: Richard Bryant/Arcaid.


Within the veracity of geography and the resonance of history, the Museum of Scotland offers a lexicon of spatial types to suit the collection's variety of objects, artificially locating them within a recognizable domain. Circulation occupies a liminal zone, offering a contrapuntal journey beyond the taxonomy of collections or chronology. Photograph: Richard Bryant/Arcaid.


The extension to the National Gallery of Ireland lies on a rare fissure where a topographical geometry prises apart the orthogonal geometries of the Parliament and Trinity College. Splintering light between the resultant zones sets off a narrative which elaborates the relationship between the Institution, visitors and Dublin. Photograph: Helene Binet.
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Title Annotation:artist Tom Phillips' Summary Treatise on the Nature of Ornament
Author:Phillips, Tom
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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