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Antoine Picon

and Tradition
Antoine Picon, Professor of the History of
Architecture and Technology at Harvard
Graduate School of Design (GSD), and the
author of a significant new book, Ornament:
The Politics of Architecture and Subjectivity
( John Wiley & Sons), publishing in April
2013, provides the counterargument to this
issue. He argues that for innovation to go
beyond the superficial level of being a mere
design trend or fashion, it needs to avoid
presentism and develop a reflexive stance
to history and tradition.

The first diesel engine (also known as the

Third Augsburg prototype), 18967
At this early stage of its development, the diesel
engine still appears as an invention rather than a
fully fledged innovation.


In technology and economics, experts usually distinguish

between invention and innovation by contrasting the new as
a mere singularity, with newness as a spreading phenomenon
that changes entire fields of practice. When German engineer
Thomas Diesel imagined at the end of the 19th century an
engine in which ignition was triggered by pressure, he was
not yet facing an innovation, but an invention the fate of
which was not yet decided.1 Despite their ingenuity, many
inventions do not diffuse for reasons such as technical
limitations, socio-economic and cultural obstacles. From
Thomas Alva Edisons electric lighting to Malcolm McLeans
containers and their special cranes and ships, innovation
possesses a systemic character that involves solving multiple
compatibility issues within the technology itself, developing an
appropriate business model, and finding support among broad
While retaining this systemic dimension, the guest-editors
of this issue of 3 rightly point out the inadequacy of the
general approach to technological innovation in the domain of
design. Their alternative model of innovation as a generator
of vitality appears intriguing. It is worth noting its strong
organicist connotation. Interestingly, this organic inspiration
seems not so much Darwinian, like so many neo-evolutionist
theories of technological change, as Ruskinian, with its appeal
to a mix of vital impulse and ethical concerns a creative
collective force that presents a strong analogy with the
spiritual inspiration invoked by the author of The Seven Lamps
of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (18513).3
This shift definitely owes something to the perspectives
offered by digital culture in architecture. As Lars Spuybroeks
recent book reminds us, John Ruskins views on questions
ranging from the role of nature as a source of inspiration to

the importance of craftsmanship, and from ornament to

ethics, echo those held by many contemporary digital
designers.4 The environmental dimension of design
innovation that ranks among the themes of this issue is
also present in the writing of the 19th-century theorist.
One could use this implicit lineage to challenge some
of the assumptions made in the name of the innovation
imperative. Organicism is always risky in that it tries to
identify permanent natural features without paying sufficient
attention to what is actually socially constructed within
nature. Instead of being a genuine natural characteristic,
emergence could very well rank among such social
constructs, and this would explain its current appeal.5 As
Bruno Latour has convincingly argued, are we even sure
that something like a pure untouched nature lies outside
the human realm as an uncharted continent waiting to
be discovered?6 However, this is not the path that will
be followed here. Accepting the premises of the guesteditors the existence of an innovation imperative that
feeds today on digital and biological technologies an
additional characterisation of what true innovation means
in architecture, namely a reflexive stance on history and
tradition, will be proposed. Such a stance constitutes one
of the prerequisites of long-term design innovation. Without
it, architectural change remains at the level of superficial
trend and fashion.
Although the past decades have been marked by a
strong tendency to neglect historical references (Rem
Koolhaas 1978 Delirious New York was probably among
the last major theoretical contributions by a practising
architect to be based on a creative mobilisation of
historical references), such presentism cannot go on

John Ruskin, Abstract Lines, plate from The

Stones of Venice, Vol 1, 1851
For Ruskin, abstract lines, derived from nature,
are the first constituents of ornament. The plate
shows various lines at very different scales, from
the profile of a glacier in the Alps (ab) to the
curve of a branch of spruce (h). His sensitivity
to the dynamic behaviour of natural elements
seems to announce todays interest in flows,
variations and modulations. More generally,
Ruskins work appears in tune with many
concerns expressed by contemporary designers.


Studio 505, Pixel building, Melbourne, 2010

Pixel is Australias first carbon-neutral office building.
The coloured panels provide light and control glare.
Made of recycled materials, they are supported
by spandrels that provide shading and grey-water
treatment. The project is emblematic of the close
association between ornament and environmentfriendly envelope performativity that characterises
many contemporary design approaches.



forever.7 In fact, there are growing signs of the return of

historical consciousness, one of the most striking being
Patrik Schumachers attempt to connect parametricism to
the entire history of architecture and architectural thinking,
from Vitruvius to Gottfried Semper, and from Gian Lorenzo
Bernini to Le Corbusier.8 Although disputable, because of
its excessive ambition, such enterprise may be interpreted
as a symptom of a return of history in the very domain
that until now has proved particularly oblivious to it: digital
But why are history and historical consciousness so
important? The answer perhaps lies in the strong selfreferential character of the architectural discipline. From
the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century, at the time
when the doctrine of imitation still prevailed in the arts,
theorists often remarked that whereas painting and sculpture
imitate nature, architecture had a propensity to imitate itself.
Architecture is partly based on the meditation of its former
achievements as well as its shortcomings. Modernism did
not break with this self-reflexive stance, and now modern
architecture itself has become a legacy that must be
reinvested with new meaning.
In the case of architecture, self-referentiality does not
mean that external conditions do not matter; to the contrary.
The relation to the past represents in reality a convenient
way for architectural design to open itself to the challenges
of the present without becoming trapped by its limitations.
To be aware of its legacy makes design more receptive
to the unforeseeable future that true innovation entails. It
appears as the necessary stabiliser that makes the passage
from mere novelty to widespread change from invention to
innovation possible in the field of design.


Another way to understand the role of history is to

recognise that architecture is as much a tradition as a
discipline. A tradition, a living tradition that is, is not something
static. At each stage it implies transmission, but also a series
of reinterpretations as well as abandons, the price to pay
for innovation. To be effective, innovation requires at least
a change of perspective, often a more drastic departure
from the existing state of things. Sometimes a dimension
considered as constitutive of the theory and practice can
become rapidly obsolete while others are maintained and
even accentuated. At other times, long-forsaken or at least
neglected aspects can be retrieved or reinvented. Both
scenarios have applied to ornament: it almost disappeared
during the first decades of the 20th century following Adolf
Loos scathing attacks regarding its criminal character,10 but
is now making a surprising return. A historical perspective is
necessary to understand fully what is at stake in this revival.
Again, tradition is never static. It lives through constant
handing down, reinvention and loss. Ornament offers precious
insight into the close relation between tradition and innovation.
What is returning is not ornament as we knew it.
Contemporary architectural decor differs from what ornament
used to mean on a series of key points. From the Renaissance
to the end of the 19th century, ornament, at least within
Western architectural tradition, used to be local, concentrated
in specific points of a building such as pediments. However,
it now represents a pervasive condition often affiliated only
with surface. Ornament used to be added to constructive
parts. In fact, it was supposed to be all the more essential
to architecture in that it could be easily taken away, peeled,
thus following the logic of supplement analysed by Jacques
Derrida in his various writings.11 Apparently added following

an afterthought, the supplement can often reveal an inner

truth masked by more structural features, just like make-up or
well-chosen fashion accessories can express feelings deeper
than those that words can convey. Whether built-in, carved or
extruded, todays ornament is generally inseparable from the
facade that it animates, so that it can no longer be removed.
What is actually returning through what we call ornament
is a series of concerns and questions that present a direct link
with technological developments, from the new possibilities
offered by the computer (contemporary ornament appears
as an offspring of digital culture in architecture) to the various
research regarding building envelopes in relation to the
quest for sustainability. A series of broader issues including
the relation between architecture, subjectivity and politics is
also returning.12 Innovation in architecture could be defined
through the interaction between formal change, technological
challenges and cultural concerns. In such a perspective,
contemporary ornament represents an evident vector of
In addition to the ethical dimension, ornament enables
us to identify another imperative at work in architectural
innovation, that of making sense. Until now, digital designers
have shown a tendency to discard the question of meaning
as if absolutely irrelevant to an architectural decor
supposed to induce only affects.13 Is this belated reaction
to Postmodernism and its abuse of gratuitous symbols still
tenable? While Postmodernist solutions are still criticised,
some of the issues they raise are now regaining momentum.
Meaning, or rather the desire to address, in one way or
another, the realm of signification and knowledge, is probably
among these returning issues. Architectural innovation should
not only be ethical; it must make sense. 2

1. Donald E Thomas, Jr, Diesel: Technology and Society
in Industrial Germany, University of Alabama Press
(Tuscaloosa, AL), 1987.
2. See, for instance, Marc Levinson, The Box: How the
Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World
Economy Bigger, Princeton University Press (Princeton,
NJ), 2006, and Thomas P Hughes, Networks of Power:
Electrification in Western Society 18801930, Johns
Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1983.
3. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture,
John Wiley (New York), 1849, and The Stones of Venice,
Smith Elder and Co (London), 18513.
4. Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and
the Ecology of Design, V2 Publishing (Rotterdam), 2011.
5. Michael Weinstock, The Architecture of Emergence:
The Evolution of Form in Nature and Civilisation,
John Wiley & Sons (Chichester), 2010.
6. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern,
Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
7. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive
Manifesto for Manhattan, Oxford University Press (New
York), 1978.
8. Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture I:
A New Framework for Architecture and II: A New Agenda
for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons (London), 201112.
9. On the difficult relations between digital culture,
history and memory, see Antoine Picon, Digital Culture in
Architecture: An Introduction for the Design Professions,
Birkhuser (Basel), 2010.
10. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, 1929, republished
in Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays,
Ariadne Press (Riverside, CA), 1998, pp 16776.
11. See, for instance, Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology,
Paris, 1967; English translation John Hopkins University
Press (Baltimore, MD), 1976.
12. Antoine Picon, Ornament: The Politics of Architecture,
John Wiley & Sons (Chichester), 2013.
13. See Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo, The Function
of Ornament, Actar (Barcelona), 2006.

Another way to understand the role of history is to

recognise that architecture is as much a tradition as a
discipline. A tradition, a living tradition that is, is not
something static. At each stage it implies transmission,
but also a series of reinterpretations as well as abandons,
the price to pay for innovation.
Ruy Klein, Klex 1, New York, 2008
opposite: This CNC-milled high-density foam finished in pearl
Chromalusion of this installation offers a striking example of the
new possibilities of ornamentation through digital modeling and
fabrication. The result possesses a strong organic connotation. It
appears simultaneously reminiscent of the intricacies of Islamic and
Gothic vaults, not to mention Antoni Gauds architecture.

Text 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Images: p 128(t) Archives Charmet /
The Bridgeman Art Library; p 128(b)
Antoine Picon; pp 130-1 studio 505; p
132 Ruy Klein