Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The forgotten paradox of the symbolism

Seems to me only yesterday that I find myself in front of the Saint Marcel’s portal of Notre Dame of Paris on Saturn's Day. Suddenly I am in a trance and a group of determined alchemists of the 14th. century passes by my side in their way to hermetic meetings - perhaps to discuss academic, theoretical and unknown issues veiled for the rest of us, the mortals - when from the crammed group of salamanders that adorns the famous entrance, a powerful rumor of cracked voices descends to me, waking me from the most fabulous of the visions…

…Again my sense of reality was betrayed by the occult enchantment of the chimeras, grotesques, masks and gargoyles that ornaments the olden cathedral.
From the beginning, the use of ornament has been an integral part of virtually all cultures: gracing buildings, clothing, utensils, weapons, vehicles, even our bodies…hardly an appurtenance of daily life untouched by design.

Ornament has beautified the most utilitarian and the most luxurious of objects. From the war’s sword of the medieval knight to the intricate settings of the Czarina Alexandra’s Faberges, exquisite jewelry and architecture was no exception.

Perhaps ornament has been such a consistent part of human history because it has satisfied a need for beauty that everybody shares, transporting us to remote universes and places through unexpected new windows of our imagination.

From ancient times to the Gutenberg's invention of the printing press (and its subsequent mass production of written wisdom) architecture was transmitting, through all kinds of ornamentation, the perpetuation of scientific information, historical events, legend and myth and more, for practical use as well as social memoir of different cultural groups.
Notre Dame is an ideal example of architecture as a vivid and complete encyclopedia of medieval knowledge. Art and science finally found its way out from the obscurantism of the monasteries to last for ever in this grand cathedral’s facades.

Despite the “non-sanctum” act of bringing only beauty and complacence to the senses, many times ornamentation was acting on behalf of “honest” functions such as managing rain water away from roofs and walls, screening sunlight, railing balconies and stairs, etc.

Mon Dieu! The form is not following the function but the ornament is “functioning” anyway!
Inevitable debates arose as to whether or not a building was defined as “beautiful” because of its ornament and proportions, or due to other, more functional criteria.

While the Royal Academy of Architecture in France emphasized the scientific, technical approach to architecture, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, founded shortly after the French Revolution, treated architecture as an art itself. It started with a concern for human experience, personal identity, and a carefully sense of composition and beauty.

These qualities defied (as they still do) precise quantification, tough the presence or metaphor of the sensual delights of the body can be noted in today’s magnificent existing constructions.
Regardless of whether these archaic symbols became gradually to diminishing in the world at large, or whether it was a product of responsibility for equipping complex functional and large functional environments, a schism in architectural thought was to develop.

The ideology of the Modernism started in the beginning of the past century installing a new morality, ignoring popular taste, regionalism and local tendencies. It tried to develop a universal architecture without the deviations proposed for the senses, disallowing for pleasure, and hence banishing the ornament and accessions.

Modernism, now devoid of the creative ability of being a trigger to fantasy, desire, illusion and ideal, lost the opportunity to harboring a sense of dwelling and belonging for the people who lived within and amongst it.

But in the early 1980's a new stream of architectural thought began to reconsider this holy, forgotten relationship. Taking elements from the past, new designers called “Postmodernists” achieved a valid effort to provide architecture the ability to again stimulate sensations and feelings for people in other moments beyond the present, perpetuating in design and development a new sense of positive empathy between the three-dimensional element (the building) and we who inhabit.
Ornament is borrowing not only the tradition, but also sensation of other times – past to contemporary – offering realities that invites you to reflection, and to enrich your moment today.

Carpe diem!

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