“We’re well on the way to having architects as hairdressers,” warns architect and writer Neil Spiller. He’s talking about style. Exactly a century after Adolf Loos’ seminal text Ornament and Crime, architects are using digital technology to generate elaborate decoration. But what are they trying to say with all their filigreed and tessellated patterns? Now that anything is possible, how do you choose what to do? And how do you know what’s radical anymore when radicals are “going baroque”?
“Aesthetic discourse is the hot button issue for the next few years,” says Greg Lynn, one of the most prominent digital architects of the last decade. You don’t have to look very hard to see what he means. Take Foreign Office Architects’ John Lewis department store in Leicester, a glass box covered in floral swirls that wouldn’t be out of place in a William Morris pattern book, or Francis Soler’s Ministry of Culture in Paris, based on Hector Guimard’s art nouveau Metro stations. Caruso St John is building a contemporary art museum in Nottingham with lace patterns embossed into its concrete surface, making reference to extinct local industry. Perforated facades, a feature fast becoming ubiquitous on new buildings, are sometimes fractilinear and abstract and sometimes figurative. BIG’s Mountain housing in Copenhagen has a facade laser-cut to depict a mountain.
This decorative tendency is even more apparent at London’s architecture degree shows. There are patterns everywhere, classical orders, hyper-baroque and, most strangely, caryatids, human bodies and organic structures. Oliver Domeisen teaches a design studio at the Architectural Association which looks back, of all things, to rococo, that most ornate and some might say vulgar of styles. For him, “abstraction is a retreat”; we have to reintroduce the notions of beauty and figuration to architecture in order to give it meaning again. Domeisen wants architecture that is “voluptuous and eloquent”, and he regularly uses words such as “beautiful” or “sensual” to describe it.