The debate between excess and minimalism in architecture will likely continue in the same sinusoidal pattern as the rising and falling of hemlines in fashion. While economists have precisely tied the lengths of hemlines of skirts with the economy, the fluctuations of architectural ornamentation take place over far greater spans of time. Perhaps this is because the construction of architectural projects can be measured in years while the demands of fashion fluctuate from season to season.
Alternatively, deeper forces may be at work. Recent work in evolutionary psychology dictates that human beings are swayed by a desire to fit in, but those who rebel in the opposite direction often become the most successful. This dichotomy can be seen in the rugged fashion of punk's opposition to repressive governments, the backlash of the hippie movement from the cookie-cutter fifties, and even in the haphazard grunge look that grew in stark contrast to glam rock and hair metal. Though purists like Adolf Loos or John Pawson might disagree, seemingly fickle changes in design movements may have as much to do with the culture that preceded them as they are a manifestation of the times themselves. Modern architecture would have little sway without the precedents of Antoni Gaudi or the Baroque movement.
In their book The Function of Ornament, Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo attempt to explain the paradox of the seemingly purposeless vestiges people emblazon on top of "functional" architecture. After a short introduction tracing the popularity of ornament from the Romans to the modernists, Moussavi and Kubo jump right into examples. While an exploration of the antecedents of modernism (and by association, their logical successors in "modern" ornament) could warrant a whole book, the philosophizing is kept to a minimum in favor of graphic examples of buildings which occasionally manage to make ornament functional.
Setting aside the inherent dialectic, a common theme across all projects is a sense of order, often achieved by repetition or by symmetry. Occasionally, the organizatiton even veers into the fractal -- the natural placement of compounded numbers seen repeatedly in the physical world -- such as the Serpentine Pavilion designed by Toyo Ito in London, where crisscrossing lines form triangles out of varying or seemingly random spaces, or the Dominus Winery by Herzog & de Meuron in the Napa Valley, where different sizes of natural rocks together cascade into seemingly random particles while betraying an underlying order.
The Function of Ornament goes beyond simply finding commonalities, and the authors' efforts at categorization are admirable. The book groups architectural projects into four broad sections: Form, Structure, Screen, and Surface, and provides examples of each. The authors supply notes and snippets detailing the construction of each work, but for the most part, they let the works express themselves.
Their very categorization, however, does demonstrate some function behind seemingly abstract ornament. Why, for example, if ornament is purely functional, can the authors state that "factories and retail typologies are found mostly in the Surface" category, while "towers are mostly found in the Form and Structure" categories? Are there functions behind ornamental categories that predispose certain constructions to categories of ornamentation?
Given the demands of a tall building with a small footprint, the reliance on using the form of the building as a type of ornament seems only natural. That said, actually erecting buildings where the structure of the building is the ornament leads to wildly divergent opinions. Lord Norman Foster's 30 St. Mary Axe building is commonly known as "The Gherkin," while detractors have gone so far as to deem it "The Towering Innuendo" or even the "Crystal Phallus." Somehow, like fashion, ornament has become divisive, and yet, for many of these buildings, the ornament has become the function, turning Louis Sullivan on his head.
Strangely, or possibly purposefully, however, the book itself is far from embellished. The cover consists only of line drawings and letters in white on a crisp red background and the pages themselves contain only black and white renderings of the buildings. Often the buildings represented within have been shown in angles or views that reduce their exterior details to a level of abstraction or pattern that would be more at home in fabric or tile than on the side of a building. According to the notes in the back of the book, "the drawings in this book are entirely the work and interpretation of students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, based on publicly available information on the works represented." It must be said that those unnamed students produced gorgeous and clear drawings, but this is ornament folks, and the reader can't help but demand color and detail.
I yearned on every page to see real color photos of these buildings, at varying times of day. The desire was so strong that I had to Google or Wikipedia at least one out of every five buildings in the book to see them in their entirety. Particularly for those that use moire or interference patterns like the John Lewis Department store in Leicester, UK, I longed to visit the original and change my vantage point repeatedly just to see the effect. Perversely, The Function of Ornament's greatest failing in adequately expressing the beauty of the buildings portrayed in it also served as the strongest argument for its cause. Because even if the patterns and designs contained within didn't serve strict structural purposes, in real life, they serve a certain one: making people smile when they look at something new on the horizon.