Book Review: Function of Ornament

Function of Ornament edited by Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo

Any book that purports to be "a graphic guide to ornaments in the twentieth century" is bound to be looked at not only in terms of what it includes but what it omits. The 42 building facades presented in this thoroughly- and beautifully-illustrated book (produced from a 2006 studio in the Harvard GSD) do an excellent job in giving a broad overview of the various materials and affects achieved by mostly contemporary buildings, while not being (or pretending to be) completely thorough. Not surprisingly, Herzog & de Meuron top the list of repeaters with eight designs featured (almost a fifth of the total), and Toyo Ito follows with three. Those with two designs featured include Jun Aoki, Foreign Office Architects, Jean Nouvel, Eero Saarinen, SOM, and Frank Lloyd Wright. This list -- and the format of the book that breaks the projects into four categories: form, structure, screen, and skin -- shows a contemporary preference or progression from facades dictated by form or structure to those independent of the building behind, veering from layered transitions between outside and inside to total independence.

Farshid Moussavi's introduction frames the consistent representations of affects, sections, and diagrams that follow within the architect's increasingly-diminished responsibilities (in many cases solely the facade) and the responsibility of architects to confront head on the culture in which they work. Therefore, based on what designs are included, this book addresses basically a Western culture, one that extends to Japan but features only two other projects outside Europe and the United States. If the importance of cultural expression is as important as Moussavi states in her introduction, perhaps a broader range of contexts should have been presented to illustrate how that goal can be addressed and achieved successfully. A fitting example would be Geoffrey Bawa's deeply-layered facades in his native Sri Lanka, facades which balance Modernism and local materials, crafts, and traditions. This is less an absolute critique of the book than a suggestion for potential future studio projects, as one of the wonderful aspects of this book is its repeatability and the hope for future editions or volumes that expand on this very promising beginning.