Designing Dirty Ornament
When I was at the University of Oregon, we had an old-fashioned professor who asked us to design architectural ornament. This was in the 1970's, a period when applied decoration was rarely done and its creation within the popular modern mien was taboo.
The assignment was presented within a survey of historic ornament from ancient times to the twentieth century, including, as I recall, elements from the Parthenon in Athens, the ceiling of a Baroque church, masks from a Robert Adam façade, and some early work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
At the next class, we showed our designs. We all learned how difficult these are to invent. In the sessions that followed, it became even more challenging for us as we were asked to demonstrate how our designs might fully integrate into an entire building, appear in shade and shadow, and ultimately in a final session, how they would look wet and dirty.
I remember a classmate became very hostile about this last requirement, ranting that it was a stupid waste of time. To begin with, the understanding of architectural embellishment was of low importance to him and to consider dirty ornament--who would let it get dirty--caused him pain. I have not forgotten that moment. These exercises, perhaps thanks to him, have obviously stayed with me.
Over the years I have often thought about dirty and clean ornament. My SoHo neighborhood inspires this thinking. As I write, I can see McKim Mead and White's great Cable Building (dirty) and the cast iron facades of Greene Street (mostly clean and freshly painted). On Friday, I walked along Bleecker Street past the only Louis Sullivan building in New York, the Bayard-Condict Building, a terracotta front of complex, wonderful and recently restored detail that would match the finest examples presented to us in that studio class years ago.
I stopped and stared at it as it was raked in the light of a beautiful early summer sunset. A lovely view made possible by Sullivan's design genius and further reason to continue the requirement that students learn to draw ornament.
Photos by Alfonzo Diaz.