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Performative Ornamentation

Günsu Merin Abbas, İpek Gürsel Dino

Published Apr 14, 2021

Digital technologies have paved the way for the prevalence of intricate surface articulations by computational design and fabrication methods and tools (Kolarevic & Klinger, 2013; Picon, 2016). Their decorative quality has brought back to the focus of architecture the discussion of ornamentation based on a strong distinction between meaning and making, in which the classical notion of tectonics is built upon. However, such technologies run the risk of being used merely for their formal potential that serves stylistic and aesthetic appreciation – meaning as a spectacle and commodity – without their systematic approach and tectonic qualities, since their introduction to the domain of design and architecture. On the other hand, it is widely asserted that with digital technologies, architecture has lacked the poetic and historic aspect of construction (Hartoonian, 2006). Here, it is assumed that the form as a diagram of forces - has a potential to resolve such misuse and disparity. Both historical and contemporary ornamentation is asserted to be a product of the forces and the process. For historical ornamentation, the force was culture and history, and therefore the narrative for contemporary ornamentation could be environmental forces (such as thermal heat gain, material density, wind load etc). It is assumed that, by thermal or structural performance, which are based on quantifiable data, contemporary surface articulations have the potential to become performative ornamentations. Such articulations, by enabling the layers of building skin with different qualities, could provide effective environmental and structural control (Moussavi & Kubo, 2006; Pell, 2010). To this end, performative ornamentation has the potential to mediate meaning and making, and to liberate ornamentation from any the negative connotations.

With digital technologies, there appeared to be a change in the content, methods and tools of ornamentation. Digital design and fabrication methods replaced the craftsman’s creative design and making process with automated design and fabrication processes. Regarding the flexibility that is provided by such tools and methods, the tactile quality of the surface could be improved. As Gottfired Semper highlights in Bekleidung, the artistic articulation of the material is equal to meaning by evoking feelings (Hartoonian, 2006). Accordingly, due to its potential to evoke the feelings, such quality is critical, and enhances the communicative nature of the surface (Kolarevic & Klinger, 2013; Picon, 2016).

It can be noted that performative ornamentation may lack a historic and symbolic dimension, but not its communicative character. In that sense, performative ornamentation may not fulfil Ruskin’s craft-based approach that is characterized by revealing the traces of the craftsman’s creative process, emphasizing the imperfectness and the uniqueness of the ornamentation. Nevertheless, performative ornamentation has the potential to respond to Semper by means of providing a certain tactile quality, and also to Viollet-le-Duc, regarding the effective use of ornamentation in respect to its rational and innovative role based on current technologies.


Hartoonian, G. (2006). Crisis of the Object: The Architecture of Theatricality. New York: Routledge.

Kolarevic, B., & Klinger, K. (2013). Manufacturing Material Effects: Rethinking Design and Making in Architecture. New York: Routledge.

Moussavi, F., & Kubo, M. (2006). The Function of Ornamentation. Barcelona: Actar.

Pell, B. (2010). The Articulate Surface: Ornamentation and Technology in Contemporary Architecture. Basel: Birkhauser.

Picon, A. (2016). “Ornamentation and Its Users: From the Vitruvian Tradition to the Digital Age.” In Histories of Ornamentation: From Local to Global, Gülrü Necipoğlu, ed. Princeton:  Princeton University Press, pp. 10-19.

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