The Function of Ornament Edited by Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo.Actar, 2007.189pp. £17.50
This is a strange artefact, a book about architectural ornament, all in silvery grey without a trace of colour anywhere, which communicates almost entirely through drawings; there are very few words. It consists of 42 fourpage spreads, each devoted to a 20th-century building and each following a standard sequence.
First comes the close-up: a detail of the building's surface which fills the whole two pages without border or explanation except for the label strip along the top. Deprived of coordinates, you are pushed up against a complex surface that you cannot place. After a while you begin to ask questions about the technique, but it is undeniably powerful. Next come two pages on a different scale, with multiple explanatory drawings showing the cladding system that produces the powerful effect sprung on you by the preceding pages.
This is the moment to say that the authors call all these effects 'affects'. In fact the word 'affect' is the bugbear of this book, taken from that master of confusion Gilles Deleuze and worked for all it is worth to refer to just about anything anyone detects in a building.
There are uted affects, quilted affects, textured affects, rusticated affects, luminous affects, scaleless affects and many, many more. I've always thought affects were internal events, and these are certainly not, to begin with. This loose use of language allows us to make categories out of extremely indefinite quantities, and the result is conceptual confusion about as complete as I've ever come across.
The close-up drawings are wonderful, and uncertainties about how to group the examples actually enhance the exciting immediacy of the material, which includes lots of Herzog & de Meuron and Toyo Ito and a modest amount of Foreign Office Architects, covering in this way the current revival of architectural ornament. The buildings are shown as fragments not wholes; you had better know most of them already if you want to know how the detail forms part of anything larger than a cladding bay.
By this means the book is making a powerful statement about how it sees ornament: here ornament means surface featuring which tends to obliterate the building as a solid mass and to focus the spectator on sensation that is strangely self contained, like an affect enjoyed privately.
The historical or cultural perspective of the book is equally strange. The very first sentence is: 'Architecture needs mechanisms that allow it to become connected to culture.'
So ornament is the name for the imagery that architecture finds somewhere outside itself, which includes (in the authors' view) the vertical ridges on Mies' Seagram building.
That is perhaps the outer edge of what they will allow as ornament, but it's clear that the concept can thus embrace just about any form of differentiation of exterior surface; an interesting but drastic widening of the term.
One of the older examples is Wright's Johnson Wax tower, whose ornament consists of bands of brick and bands of glass tubes, window alternating with wall. Perhaps the tubes by themselves also count as ornament because they are more variegated than normal glazing. These arguments are not mounted in any detail; the drawings provide most of the detailed comment in the individual sections. Even the short captions can be so confusing that I was sometimes tempted to give up on them entirely.
Here, for example, is how Kurokawa's Capsule Hotel is introduced: 'The Capsule Hotel uses the programmatic units of the hotel to create an aggregated affect. Rooms are designed as capsules dimensioned to -t within a regulating module that allows for different configurations of capsules around the central core, generating a threedimensional composition of elements that contributes to the dynamic aggregation of the whole.'
Throughout the book there's no consciousness of anything before Modernism, seen rather unsympathetically as fixated on transparency. The authors discuss the proportion of historical to contemporary examples in various sections; by this they mean pre- and post1990. But the book's narrowness is also its strength. It came straight out of a seminar at Harvard, without much time for reection, and has its nose pressed against the glass of the present in charming oblivion of practically anything else.
Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University