An ornament is a form of decorative detail that is elegant enough to beautify and symbolize any object as a part of it. Ornamentation gives imagery of grandeur and royalty, especially in the older times, and with that, it made a mark of its symbolic, functional, and even cultural value. In architecture, ornamentation can be the decorative identification of a structure. 

The historical times make us appreciate the intricate beauty of places, while modern ornamentation resembles both functional and aesthetic use. Originally, usage of ornaments was only for a decorative purpose though today’s architecture comes up with many ways and new ideas to make these elements valuable yet pleasing. 

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Vivid Ornamentation in Architecture_©

Ornamentation in architecture is the addition of attractive elements and features that blend into the building as a whole and beautify it. A vast range of ornament is frequently seen around in architecture. It begins with the building’s fenestration and is not limited to even structural elements like columns.

Termed as surface modulation by Sir John Summerson, an architectural historian, these ornaments may be found simply on the surface or cut or raised from it. The broad spectrum of ornamentation and its style refers to the specific culture from which it originates. The birth and identity of unique forms of décor are influenced and inspired by a variety of places. 

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Ornamentation Defining Places_©

Ornamentation, with time, has displayed meanings of its existence. 

There are three categories in which they are divided based on their expression, which is as follows: 

  • Imitative Ornament: The symbolic expression of this ornamentation is bold enough to tell the definite meanings of the structure in the form of geometric patterns, shapes, and even the material used. 
  • Applied Ornament: These ornamentations turned the importance of symbolic reference to the structure to merely decorative details applied to it. 
  • Structural Ornament: The mid-20th century formulated the concept of structural ornaments that follows an essential belief that they derive meaning from the form, nature, or the material of the building.

Furthermore, based on ornaments positioned on the building, the distinct categories are surface ornaments, edge ornaments, and junction ornaments.

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Imitative Ornamentation at Parthenon_©
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Applied Ornamentation_©

As time went on, architecture evolved, and with it, ornamentation grew more in design. With one architecture movement leading to another, it created many possibilities for new elements to be implemented in the design.

Looking back at the detailed ornamentation historical times presented, they belonged to Gothic and Romanesque movements in architecture. These movements led to the Neo-classical and Baroque architecture that displayed the drama of contrasts in ornamentation. This period was an inspiration from its past, and it blended the elements to create a new possibility. The movements that came up further on inspired ornamentation to be more inclined towards functionality. It led to a drastic change and controversies in architecture that made way for the new modern era. 

Discussing the journey of ornamentation and how architecture movements through time affected it, there are some cases as follows:

1. The Beginning of Ornamentation – Romanesque and Gothic Era | Ornament

The Romanesque and Gothic style of architecture dates to the medieval era that is the fifth to the sixteenth century. There was the representation of medieval art in ornamentation. The dominant structural and applied ornamentation of this era had symbolic depictions of art and the culture of that period. 

The Gothic era succeeded the Romanesque era, and it flourished during the late medieval period. Learning from Romanesque ornamentation was implemented in the Gothic period. 

Romanesque Ornamentation_©
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Gothic Ornamentation at Reims Cathedral_©

The semi-circular arches gave way to the new pointed arches in the Gothic era, which appeared grand and intricate. The simplest barrel vaults observed precisely during the Romanesque period were replaced by the ribbed vaults that gathered appreciation from many. The late medieval saw the old Romanesque style with dark interiors and small windows setting aside. Instead, there were rose windows with rich decorative motifs glazed with stained glass that allowed bright interior spaces. 

The window sizes increased during this time, and it allowed maximum light and the articulate patterns and carvings with flying buttresses. Along with the replacements, the ornamentation of the Romanesque era blended beautifully with the Gothic times, such as the panel carvings, reliefs, patterns, and motives.

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Romanesque Ornamentation_©
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Gothic Ornamentation_©

2. The Learning from Past – Baroque and Neoclassical Era 

The ornamentation which was dominant in the Baroque and Neo-Classical eras was an inspiration from the past. This period observed improvement from the past times. 

The Baroque movement dates back to the 16th century, and it focused specifically on creating a drama of contrasts. During this time, the emphasis was on grandeur and royalty. The ornamentation played a noble role in improving the appearance and attractiveness of the structures built during this time. The applied decoration on the surface observed was in the form of gilding and vividly painted ceilings. The grand decorations and embellishments during this time were a statement of wealth in this period. The contrast of light and dark, the bright color paintings, and the unrealistic arts symbolized emotions.  

The Neoclassical era dates back to the 18th century. The time observed learnings from the Classical and Greek periods. The ornamentation displayed contrast but with a sense of rigid symmetry in design. The symbolic expression of the decor was due to the cultural and social aspects. In contrast to the extensive details in Baroque ornamentation, the neoclassical era’s recognition was through the simplicity of geometric patterns. 

The usage of Classical elements was through the simple yet grand doric-order columns. Neoclassical time borrowed and manipulated ideas majorly from classical time, but different arts and ideologies influenced it.

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Baroque Oramentation_©
Neo-Classical Ornamentation_©
Neo-Classical Ornamentation_©

3. The Golden Age of Gaudi – Catalan Modernism and Art Nouveau | Ornament

Antonio Gaudi-the golden charm of modernist architecture had the most individualistic approach towards modernization. Through his works, he stands as an individual representative of Catalan Modernism. While other architects indulged in the minimalistic approach, Gaudi refined his works over extensively ornamented buildings with many artists and craftsmen Josep María Jujol being one of them. His works are the true representation of the amalgamation of learnings from the past and give way for functionality and sustainability to co-exist. 

Antonio Gaudi's Work_©
Antonio Gaudi’s Work_©

Gaudi, through his nature-inspired work in Sagrada Familia, showed structurally, applied, and imitative ornamentation. The smallest of details in the ornamentation of the structure is a thought process of Gaudi himself. The structural elements like spiral stairways and conoid-shaped roofs are the main attraction of today as they blend distinctly with the intricate geometric patterns in ornamentation. 

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is appreciated for its ornamentation inspired by nature which gives the whole structure a natural look confirming nature’s law. The symbolic ornamentation is observed in the form of gargoyles which depicts animals displaced by the structure’s construction. The structural ornamentation in the form of tree-columns and pinnacles is inspired by grasses and pyrite crystals. There are many other works by Antonio Gaudi that make viewers spellbound today.

Sagrada Familia_©
Sagrada Familia_©
Sagrada Familia_©
Sagrada Familia_©

4. The Modern Era – The Minimalistic Approach for Ornamentation 

The Modern Era brought a drastic change to ornamentation. Previously there would have been no possibility of approaching minimalism. There had to be extensively detailed and bulky ornamentation with any structure that possessed value. The definition of decor and the whole purpose was changed and banished during the modern era. The modernists of this era believed in the usefulness and functionality of ornaments. With this firm belief, the design and beauty of a structure became the simplest achievable form. 

The ornamentation was not in the form of any colorful paintings, floral patterns, or any motifs. Instead, the structural elements were aesthetic and eye-catching. As mentioned earlier, Antonio Gaudi was the architect of the modern era. Though controversially, he did not play by the rules of a minimalistic approach towards ornamentation. Meanwhile, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the modern minimalistic designs.

Le Corbusier maintained the ornamentation and architecture of his designs through concrete as the chief material. The modest approach with the involvement of flexible facades and articulate perforations helped the structure. Searching for similar ornamentations from the past in Corbusier’s work is not the right approach to appreciate. Instead, looking out for the punctures, fenestrations, roof layouts, and wall simplicity is the ornament in his works. 

Frank Lloyd Wright, with his celebrated contribution towards minimalism, had strict views on ornamentation. He considered Louis Sullivan as his mentor and still had a different style towards ornamentation. Wright kept his ornaments minimal and articulate. The trademark ornament was stained glass but not limited to glazing. The openings in design by Wright followed simplistic geometry and the famous ribbon windows contribute to minimal ornamentation. 

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Le Corbusier’s Work_©
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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Work_©

5. The Functional Present – Contemporary Architecture | Ornament

Present-day architecture, famously known as contemporary architecture, has the opportunity to learn and implement the contrasts of ornamentation. With all factors like sustainability, functionality, and beautification, the past teaches us to blend lessons that users appreciate the result. 

Behind the trends of ornamentation, the main motive is to attract and gather praise. There are practices all around that are implementing all factors gracefully. One example of contemporary architecture is The Museum of Future, which graciously incorporates modern ornamentation. 

The Museum of the Future in Dubai is the prime example of ornamentation involving form manipulation and even the symbolic representation of calligraphy on its facade. The organic and curved form is the result of present-day technology, and it symbolizes harmony with society. The form contributes towards the modern era learning, while the calligraphy on the curved skin is an appreciation of artistry and strength coming from the beginning of ornamentation. The Arabic calligraphy on the facade is the imitative ornamentation that displays mankind’s passion for arts and creativity. 

Interestingly, the calligraphy on the surface acts as a fenestration for the structure. The intriguing hollow void within the upper phase is the symbolic representation of the unspoken future. Considering the functional decoration with a minimal yet bold look is a masterpiece defining the theory of ornamentation. The structure ornamentation inspires the people who continue to discover humanity towards a better future. The exceptionally pleasing and meaningful look of the Museum of the Future can be the prime example of ornamentation.

The Museum of Future_©
The Museum of Future_©
Interior of Museum of Future_©
Interior of Museum of Future_©

At the concluding note, there was gradual progress of ideas, enhanced appearance of structures, and the implementation of ornamentation. Through the conflicting perspectives of many architects and the critical society, one notices that ornamentation still stays alive in architecture marvels in one or another form. The attractive bulky detail of the decoration in the past attracts users and makes them appreciate the hard work of artisans. 

Meanwhile, the modern and contemporary style ensures that users are keen to observe and appreciate the minimalistic approach towards ornamentation. While pondering over the matter discussed, the book by Adolf Loos – Ornament and Crime gets mandatory. There has been critical acclaim by Loos as he believed that it was a crime to waste the hard work of artisans to add ornamentations when it would soon go out of style. 

Contrary to this belief, when we look at the contemporary architects, implementing ornaments in their design, beautifully and functionally; the visionary of Adolf Loos might go in vain.

Ornament is Crime by Adolf Loos_©
Ornament is Crime by Adolf Loos_©

The present architecture of the contemporary world is inspired by contrasting ideologies. The architects today have meticulously implemented the learnings from the past into their flair of ornamentation. Contributing to the heritage of society at present, creating functional, sustainable, and aesthetic ornamentation is the key to achieve praise. 

Lastly, the principal takeaway would be that ornamentation as an attraction is not essential from the architectural point of view, but it pleases the taste of people, and it should remain a continued practice. Furthermore, the functionality and sustainability factor of ornaments depends on the architect and how they consider it as a curriculum.


Shevi Saxena is an ambitious architecture student with a keen eye to learn more every day. She can ponder and research over the smallest occurrence related to architecture any day and write about it. With an eager interest to learn about the history and its implementation today, she believes that architecture should give the comfort back to the users and nature.