The word “ornamentation” simply means an element of décor added to any form of artwork to enhance its appearance. John Ruskin, an art critic of the Victorian Era, in his book titled The Seven Lamps of Architecture says that ornamentation should be strictly decorative and be devoid of any functional aspect, he proves through examples that, this is the way ornamentation has been looked at and practiced in architecture. Adolf Loos, an architect ad theorist of modern architecture says that ornament is “a crime against the national economy that it should result in the waste of human labor, money, and material”, in his book called Ornament and Crime. The ornamentation relating to architecture had the same meaning and purpose, most of which have been retained but some of it lost to time, for a long time, until the dawn of the digital age. The historical conception of ornament was interwoven with this persisting idea of the style of contemporary architecture.

Ornamentation was confined to a particular style, given a clear definition, implemented with a set of rules, and was produced and applied inconsistent methodologies. The ornamentation seen in contemporary architecture surpasses the material realm, produced using the digital medium, and often exists in virtual reality. It is manifested in either intrinsic or extrinsic forms, from graphic compositions to three-dimensional sculpture construction.  It displays a great incuriosity in the style of architecture, governed by a digital paradigm. This form of ornamentation tries to achieve surface effects and dynamism. The design is highly grounded on CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing).

There is an ever-increasing interest in ornamentation shown by architects, mainly due to the potential that the form of ornament carries with it today, which is contemporary in every sense. This fact is proved through the numerous publications in literature and exhibitions held on the discourse of the meaning of ornamentation today. There have been about 38 exhibitions held from the period of 2005 to 2015 around the world, most of which took place in 2014 and 2015.

The following are some examples of ornamentation seen in contemporary architecture:

1. Ravensbourne College, Greenwich

In the case of the Ravensbourne College in Greenwich, UK, built-in 2010 by the Foreign Office Architects (FOA), the intention was to express the novelty of fabrication technology. The monolithic building is covered with 28,000 aluminum tiles in different sizes and colors, which produce unique combinations on the façades around doors and windows. Blurring the building scale, dazzling tessellations create a visual play and produce effects and sensations.

The intention of representing the novelty of advanced technology seen here shows us that contemporary architecture tends to associate more with the symbolic aspect than the functional.

2. Beijing National Aquatics Centre, Beijing

Beijing National Aquatics Center, widely known as the Water Cube, functions as a swimming sports building and represents water bubbles on all of its façades. Built by the Australian architecture office PTW Architects in 2007, the rectangular building is an example of contemporary architecture and advanced construction technology with the integration of steel frame and pneumatic cladding. The facade reveals multiple meanings on the ornamental façades, as it expresses the novelty in construction technology, associates with the Chinese symbolism through the rectangular form, and represents the building function by imitating giant irregular bubbles.

3. UK Pavilion, Shanghai

The United Kingdom Expo Pavilion in Shanghai was built in 2010 by the London-based Heatherwick Studio. Being referred to as the Seed Cathedral, the building was created out of 60,000 transparent fiber optic rods, each of which displays a different seed at the tip. Inside the building, the assemblage of the displayed seeds forms curvilinear patterns all over, whereas, on the outside, the tips of the seeds form a hairy texture. The pavilion oscillates between provoking tactility through the distinctive assembly of fiber optic rods and evoking surface effects by patterns that are perceived differently when seen from a distance and up close.

4. Arlanda Hotel, Stockholm

The ornamental façades of the Arlanda Hotel, a 2007-project-design by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in Stockholm, represent the symbolic narrative of power by depicting giant portraits of the royal figures of Sweden. Signifying the status of the Swedish authority, the façades reveal the significant role of ornament as urban portraits, as well as the embodiment and extension of power. The symbolic representation achieved through ornament transforms into the display of sheer prestige and privilege in some cases.

5. Louis Vuitton store, New York

The Louis Vuitton Store in the 5th Avenue of New York, built by the Japanese architect Jun Aoki in 2004, can be attributed as one of the examples of ornamentation that is associated with the consumption displayed by the contemporary world. The 1930 building by Cross & Cross, is clad with glasses that were ornamented with the famous checkered pattern of the brand. From the outside, the façades perform as a veil by means of the overlapped patterned glasses. Creating a moiré effect, façades draw the attention of passersby, allowing them to have a glimpse of the interior at some points. Playing with the opacity of vision, the façades represent the building function by imitating the moiré effect of Louis Vuitton, as much as they turn the brand identity and the need for advertisement into an ornament.

6. 40 Bond Apartments, New York

The 40 Bond apartment building, built by Herzog & de Meuron in New York in 2007, is covered with an ornamental surface on the ground floor level. This element, which was made of cast aluminum with a relief-like structure, functions as a kind of fence for private access to ground floor terraces, as much as it sends the curious looks of passersby away from the ground floor windows. Being an interpretation of the urban graffiti culture, the ornamental fence composes a graphic pattern that extends through the aluminum and wooden surfaces of the outer cladding and the interior decoration.

7. Beijing National Stadium, Beijing

Widely known as the Bird’s Nest, the Beijing National Stadium derives from the idea of creating a structure like a nest that unites space and surface, which are essentially two different entities. It was built by Herzog and de Meuron in 2008. As Jacques Herzog explains, if a building of contemporary architecture lacks the unity of space and surface, ornament becomes additional much like wallpaper. In the Bird’s Nest, load-bearing elements merge with non-load-bearing ones and work seamlessly as a single element. Blurring the strict borders of structure and ornament, the contemporary application of structural ornament emerges as a hybrid element. If ornament takes the role of structure then it is essentially freed from being a decorative piece.

8. House of Industry, Copenhagen

In the case of the House of Industry, neon lights turn the building into a spectacle at the center of Copenhagen at night. The brick building, designed by Erik Moller in 1979, was renovated in 2013 by Transform Architects, as they demolished the ceramic façades and replaced them with glass façades with steel structures. The neon lights planted on the glass façades wrap the whole construction and continuously flow while changing colors. The digital ornament adds a layer of ever-changing grid patterns to the static glass façade but also repeats the patterns.

9. Bella Sky Hotel, Denmark

In both its shape and in the complementary pattern of windows on its exterior, the Bella Sky Hotel by 3XN Architects looks almost typographic. Situated in Copenhagen and completed in 2011, the hotel consists of two asymmetrical towers and looks entirely different depending on your vantage point. This is an example of pattern and pattern formation which can be achieved by either of these processes: CNC melting, laser cutting, three-dimensional printing, and robotic layering. This also represents the lost symbolism, politics, and subjective nature of architecture, from various meanings to no meaning at all

10. McCormick Tribune Campus Centre, Chicago

This center built-in 2003 is the first project by Rem Koolhaas in the United States. Working around a pre-existing elevated railway, OMA/Rem Koolhaas created a sound-isolating stainless-steel tube that would form the basis of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center expansion at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The campus was originally designed by Mies Van der Rohe, whose portrait is emblazoned large on the exterior and interior walls. The 2x4m pixelated images that appear on the glass wall of the Welcome Center, among which is also one of Mies, is a good example of “pixelization”. Each pixel in the image is an icon of a custom set of icons used throughout the building at different scales.

The final statement any of these examples or ornamentation try to make is that the showcasing of novelty and advancement of technology, which is, in reality, being used as a tool to produce this kind of ornament. And of course, ornamentation adds to the pre-existing conditions of mass consumption and lures us to an absolutely materialistic world. It has become a kind of spectacle, for the society of the spectacle.


Bharani Sri is currently a B.Arch student at the VIT School of Architecture (VSPARC), Vellore. She enjoys passing her time by reading about architectural history, art, philosophy, and criticism. She believes that the world would be a better place if everyone was encouraged to look through the lens of historical analysis.