The Inevitabilities of Ornamentation A Re-instantiation of Architectural Ornamentation through Digital Production and Fabrication [Paper]


The Inevitabilities of Ornamentation

A Re-instantiation of Architectural Ornamentation through Digital Production and Fabrication

Jeremy Luebker

Tools and Trade: Instrumentality + Architecture

The University of Michigan _ Arch 701  Winter 2013 _ Amy Kulper


The architectural debate of ornamentation has resurfaced with the current development in parametric modeling, computational design and digital fabrication. Adolf Loos, stated in his work Ornament and Crime, “ornament represents wasted labor and ruined material”. Until the past decade or so, this was indeed the case. However, with the implementation of computerized modeling and parametrics the interest in complicated and unique constructions has been revitalized.  A new aura has developed around the culture of fabrication and production in response to this surge. Technologies have been appropriated form other industries and are beginning to be implemented in the architectural realm. The architectural ornament has been reincarnated.

One of these current trends of appropriation has centered on the attachment of industrial plastic extruder welders to robotic arms. These makeshift devices provide CNC control to those extrusion devices––essentially making them digitally controlled hot-glue guns. This system is not very different than 3D printing technology, except that most of the experiments currently being conducted are not focused on the built-up, additive process of extruded geometries typically associated with 3D printing. Rather, most of the experiments are situated around strand structures and blob aesthetics.

The difficulty with either of these techniques is in the nature of the material. 3d printing relies on the material below to support the soft material above as it is printed. The current experiments are relying on the limited tensile properties associated with the surface tension while the plastic is in its molten state to allow it is freed its self-juxtapositioning. However, this freedom comes at the cost of predictability and calculated fidelity necessary for this technique to be considered as a viable construction method.

A solution to this dilemma is forthcoming, however. I am currently conducting research that fuses these extruded plastics with tensioned fabrics to act as a variable and temporary molding system. The tensioned fabrics provided a semi-stable, temporary surface which provides sufficient support for the plastics in their soft state, during the cooling process. This affords a new variety of possibilities to fabrication. Fabrics are not bound by the same rules of developable surfaces to which most fabrication techniques are forced to adhere. Similarly with this variable and flexible molding strategy, the varied taxonomies of parametrics can be realized without the labor, time and material intensive processes of producing unique molds for each part.

Architectural Ornamentation

Architectural ornamentation has traditionally been one of the key elements of architectural practice and the history of the profession. Eras of architectural though can often be charted by their associations and ideas on architectural ornamentation––from the Baroque era, to the Arts and Crafts movement, to Modernism, and even Post-Modernism. As Peter Carl described in his essay “Architecture and Time”:

The main elements of what appears to be an elaborate concoction of philosophy, design, iconography and cultural renewal are in fact ancient. . . . In particular, the temporal aspects –– which are the key to the rest –– are indebted to the ornamental tradition in architecture.[1]

Each era manifested its bias through its relationship with ornamentation: the extravagance of the Baroque era, the rough-hewn hand-crafted aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement; even the stark white and form-focused absence of ornament of the Modern era— many would say that ornamentation is a thing of the past. However, a brief comparison of contemporary works to those of the past, particularly predating the Modern era, and it is quickly evident that the up-spiral of history has brought us back, full circle, to many of the under-pinning idea of ornamentation.

Ornamentation is comprised of several key elements that seem to perpetuate across its numerous manifestations: variation, visual complexity (or the lack there of), symmetry and repetition. Early Greek and Roman architecture was obsessed with symmetry and repetition of basic architectural elements, the most famous of which is undoubtedly the column. Later during the era of the church, visual complexity was gradually added as the articulations of symmetry and geometric complexity graduated to high levels of articulation, with desire to direct attention and contemplation towards Heaven. Later, during the Baroque era, the focus of the visual complexity began to shift from religious ends towards political and class distinction. Ornamentation became a stamen of wealth and power. This is most-likely the reason that ornamentation was ultimately rejected during the ensuing centuries of class struggle. The climax of this rejection was the Modernist era when pure form was embraced. The geometric ideas of ornamentation were cannibalized to be regained for the whole building as Peter Carl points out in his essay, Ornament and Time:

The attacks on ornament, the traditional vehicle of mediation in architecture, were accompanied by an effort to recover the content. The result was that those aspects of design previously reserved for ornament came to encompass whole buildings.[2]

Each of these eras were typified by various geometric exercise and biases which drove the ornamental expressions of the time:

If the metamorphic content of grotesque ornament is obvious, its geometric content is less so. When used on columns or spandrels, grotesque ornament takes on the quality of the archaic cosmic plant –– both temporal in its linear development and eternal in its manifestation as pattern. This is inevitably the result of an attention to bilateral symmetry, out of deference to the primary motif, the plant, even though the full subject-matter may include putti and chimeras, vases and thrones, fountains and temples, etc. It is really at the secondary level that one begins to appreciate the complexities of what might be termed the implicit geometrical relationships. The insistence upon regularities of rhythm creates overlapping intervals that have their own integrity, and for which the figural elements drift to the background.[3]


In addition to the geometric, however, there is also the technical aspect that drives ornamentation. Geometric complexity is achieved as the levels of available craft rise. Architectural ornament has historically been tied to the abilities of craftsman. Historically architects were known as master builders because they specialized in the ingenuity and master plan of the coordination of these craftsmen.  Because of its direct connection with craft, ornamentation also has a direct connection to labor. This is why during the Modern era Adolf Loos dismissed ornament as a crime guilty of “wasted labor and ruined material”[4]. This has historically been the case: The greater the geometric complexity the greater the time, material and skill that was required to bring the design to fruition. The principle reason for this direct correlation was due to the association with both hand-craft and subtractive fabrication methods.

Subtractive fabrication methods are similar to carving from a block of wax or some other material, whereas additive fabrication is similar to building a sand castle, built up slowly with time and material. Subtractive production methods are indeed material intensive, as Loos claimed, because the more complex the design the more material that must be subtracted, this also equates to greater time and skill to subtract this material according to the design. It took those who had a tacit knowledge of both the materials and tools to achieve the desired results.[5]

Digital Fabrication and Computation Design

In the past half-century the entire situation has changed however. Since World War Two production innovations have revolutionized the industrial realms of fabrication. Computers have been incorporated with nearly every aspect. As technologies have become readily available they have been repurposed for other means––giving rise to digital fabrication. Computation has also invaded the design realm, replacing the pencil and drafting table with a monitor and mouse. Terms like computational design, parametric modeling and scripting have become synonymous with radical and progressive cutting edge architectural designs. With them the essence of the architectural ornament has been reborn. These contemporary design methodologies operate on the fundamental principles of ornamentation: variation, visual complexity, symmetry (or lack of) and repetition (often called paneling or tiling). This new architectural era builds on the iconic forms that resulted when ornamentation switched from decoration to geometric manipulation of massing during the Modern and Post-Modern eras. Facades and “skins” have become a place for this new expression of neo-ornamentation.

Digital Craft

Just as ornamentation has always been associated with craft so too this new ornamentation is associated with a new kind of craft. Traditionally craft has been associated with tacit knowledge of the hand. However, with digital fabrication, a new digital craft has emerged. There is a new digital hand at play in the architectural realm. Many feel that this has nothing to do with craftsmanship; however, Hannah Arendt demonstrates that the ideas of mechanization are a simple and logical step forward:

The actual work of fabrication is performed under the guidance of a model in accordance with which the object is constructed. This model can be an image beheld by the eye of the mind or a blueprint in which the image has already found a tentative materialization through work. In either case, what guides the work of fabrication is outside the fabricator and precedes the actual work process in much the same way as the urgencies of the life process within the laborer precede the actual labor process.[6]

Later she proceeds further in saying:

The point is that nothing can be mechanized more easily and less artificially than the rhythm of the labor process, which in its turn corresponds to the equally automatic repetitive rhythm of the life process and its metabolism with nature. Precisely because the animal laborans does not use tools and instruments in order to build a world but in order to ease the labor of its own life process, it has lived literally in a world of machines ever since the industrial revolution and the emancipation of labor replaced almost all hand tools with machines which in one way or another supplanted human labor power with the superior power of natural forces.[7]

Computer Numeric Control (CNC) and Computer Aided Design (CAD) have been inserted between the hand of the designer or fabricator (the contemporary artisan) to allow for precise and controlled movements. This has a multitude of benefits: precise translation of the digital model to physical forms, rapid machining, and the ability to either mass produce or mass customized parts. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, if in the past craftsman followed the blueprints today fabricators cause their machines to follow tool paths.

As these technologies become increasingly more available, new tooling systems are being developed and experimented with. Robotics are rapidly becoming the new hands, they are however not as automatic as many seem to think. They require a great deal of skill and knowledge to program and control:

Robotic fabrication is an alliance between generic equipment and custom processes; robots were arguably the first truly open-source fabrication tools. The machines themselves… are relatively generic and, while continually improving in performance…. The promise of robotic fabrication has always been the ability to perform a multitude of unique tasks from a common programming platform; while specific manufactures us unique syntax, the offline programming techniques used are consistent. The change in recent years has been contextual a result of the development of computational design processes by innovative architecture practices and education institutions. The use of algorithms to directly control fabrication tools is a natural progression; it simply requires an understanding of the specific fabrication process and the ability to simulate the kinematics of the machine tool.[8]

3D Printing Technologies

As was discussed previously, there are two main types of fabrication: subtractive and additive. Most conventional means of fabricating––masonry, casting, metal or wood ––required subtractive processes to produce ornamentation. In contemporary fabrication, subtractive fabrication has been delegated to CNC routing and CAD-CAM laser technologies primarily. However, there is a new set of technology that has taken hold of the additive aspect of fabrication: 3D printing. Generally associated with small plastic models printed on Z-Corp or ABS printers, 3D printing technologies have in fact expended to much greater realms. Recent experiments have taken this technology into new materials and new techniques.

Generally 3D printing generates the digital model in the given material by slicing the model in a series of flat contours. The printer then lays down the material in thin layers corresponding to these contours, with support material being added as needed. This preferences certain types of geometries while making others relatively material intensive. Generally extrusion geometries require less support material and are therefore less material intensive and more cost effective; this, however, preferences planimetric forms. Recent experiments in 3D printing however have begun to experiment with larger scales of printing, alternate materials, and alternate methods which preference non-planimetric geometries. Technically 3D printing is simply some sort of material extrusion mechanism fixed to a CNC system. This opens a whole gamete of possibilities of research.

The Radiolario Pavilion, presented at the 2011 Fabricate conference,[9] experimented with printing concrete. In addition to experimenting with a new material in the printing realm which is considered a standard construction material, this project also addressed the issue of architectural scale printing. This begins to present the opportunity to introduce the freedom and flexibility of printing into the architectural building industry. This opens the door to produce the variation, complexity and visual complexity of ornamentation and parametrics at relatively material conservative and time efficient manner.

Another strain of experimentation trending recently amongst academic institutions has been repurposing industrial grade plastic welding extruders to 3D printing heads by attaching them to robotic arms. One of the first of these experiments was performed as a thesis project of Zachary Schoch at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). [10] This set of experiments engage free-form extrusion. These experiments essentially strive to eliminate support material entirely. The weakness of this particular project was that it will relied on a jig or structure on which to print and was lacking in the fidelity demanded by fabrication for constructability. Where the previous free-form experiments failed, however, the recent Pet Flake project, presented at the Robotics in Architecture Conference 2012, succeeded. By slowing down the extrusion process, the plastic was allowed to cool and harden in the air, creating fully controllable and predictable free-form printing without support material. One issue still stands in the way for this process to be considered a viable construction method, however. The relationship the extruder has to the part is inherently problematic: machines of appropriate scale have not yet been seen within the industry to replicate this process at a larger scale.

Tool: Robotic [CNC] Controlled Plastic Extrusion

Within my own research this year at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of Michigan, has bug to address another possibility of printed construction. By introducing a second material to the previous techniques—fabric—the printed plastic is caused to become engages as a composite in a material system. In this system, the extruded plastic (in this case copolymer polypropylene) provides the structure frame network while the fabric provides the initial surface tension needed to form panel-like geometries. The fabric is held in form by a system of piano wire and wooden dowel fixed in a CNC peg board. This allows the fabric to act as a temporary and variable fixture system eliminating both the time and material necessary to create unique molds for each part while still yielding a varied aggregated taxonomy of unique panels. The resultant panels are light weight, yet still retain enough structural integrity (currently tested at 1:30 ratio by weight for some geometries) to provide a viable construction method for a shelter system or skin system.

The greatest development that these light weight fabric-plastic panels bring to the table is that they provide a viable method of producing non-developable surfaces without the need for tensioning. These panels draw from a rich lineage of predecessorial inspiration such as the hyperbolic surfaces of tensile fabric architecture and Semper’s writings on fundamentals of architecture and shelter. But for the purpose of this paper, this system provides time efficient, material responsible solution to architectural ornamental fabrication. Each of the unique scalar surface operations of many parametric projects can now be produce quickly without the costly and time intensive process of making molds and can be made without the need to planarizing to produce from sheet goods.


Nearly all of the digital fabrication and parametric design projects of the past two decades have operated on the same underlying principles as those of historical architectural ornamentation such a variation and visual complexity. However they have brought these principles back with solution to issues of fabrication time, material efficiency, and scale of production. Rather than discovering something new, we have simply built on the rich history of architectural precedents and articulation. We can, however, produce our end result quicker and with more efficiency than our predecessors. Yet it requires just as much skill and craft––just in different ways.


Articles and Publication Excerpts

Arendt, Hannah. (1958) “Work” in The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 136-174

A classic work differentiating between work and labor, tool and machine.

Benjamin, Walter (2008) “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of The Harvard University Press. 19-55

The renown work of Benjamin discussing mass production.

Carpo, Mario (2009) “Revolutions: Some New Technologies in Search of an Author” in Log 15.

An article mapping out the narrative of new technologies in architecture.

Cache, Bernard, (2000) “Digital Semper” based on the version from Anymore. Cambridge, MIT Press: 190-197.

A sort paper placing Semper’s treaties in contemporary terms.

Carl, Peter, (1991) “Architecture And Time: A Prolegomena.” AA Files 22. 48-65.

A contemporary essay on the temporary nature of architectural ornamentation. 

Carl, Peter, (1992) “Ornament And Time: A Prolegomena.” AA Files 22. 49-64.

A contemporary discussion on architectural ornamentation articulating the geometric translation from decoration to form.

Easterling, Keller (2005) “Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture.” MA: MIT Press. 99-122

A essay discussing the effects of various technological advances on society and industry.

Loos, Adolf (1908)   “Ornament and Crime.” Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture. Ed. Ulrich Conrads.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.  19-24

Loos’s infamous piece detailing the waste which architectural ornamentation embodies.

Le Corbusier (1931) “Architecture or Revolution.” Towards a New Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.

      Le Corbusier’s article articulating the radical nature of architecture.

MCCullough, Malcolm. (1996) “Hands,” and “Tools,” in Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 1-31, and pp. 59-82.

Excerpts from Malcom’s book equating the traditional associations with hand-craft and tools to digital craft and tools.

Paolanyi, Michael. (1966) “Tacit Knowing,” in The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday)

An essay describing the acquisition of knowledge through practice of the hands.

Semper, Gottfried (1860/1989) “Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts or Practical Aesthetics” in The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, Trans. Harry F. Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 215-19 and 254-57.

The Classic work on architectural tectonics and techniques through a cataloging of materials qualities and associated technical and material opportunities.

Sennett, Richard. (2008) “The Hand,” in The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press. Pp. 149-178.

A contemporary essay on the temporary nature of architectural ornamentation.


Aranda, Benjamin, and Lasch, Chris. (2006). Tooling. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

A work exploring patterns generated by computer codes that in turn create an organizational template assembling projects.

Beorkrem, Christopher, (2013). Material Strategies in Digital Fabrication. New York: Routledge.

An atlas and dissection of thirty-six of the most progressive works of architecture of the past few years.

Borden, G. Peter. (2012) Matter: Material Processes in Architectural Production. New York: Routledge.

A compellation of essays from both practice and academia, presenting some of the most significant projects and thoughts on materiality from the last decade.

Corser, Robert, Ed. (2010) “Fabricating Architecture: Selected Readings in Digital Design and Manufacturing.” New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

      A collection of articles cataloging new technologies and their potential to revolutionize the architectural profession.

Gage, Mark Foster & Lynn, Greg. (2010) Composites, Surfaces, and Software: High Performance Architecture. Yale School of Architecture: New Haven, Connecticut.

A catalog of composite fabrication processes both within the discipline of architecture but predominately outside of the field.

Glynn, Ruairi & Sheil, Bob. (2012). Fabricate: Making Digital Architecture. Hong Kong: Riverside Architectural Press.

A compellation of the 2011’s FABRICATE conference.

Hauschild, Moritz & Karzel Rudiger. (2011). Detail Practice: Digital Processes. KG, Munich: Institut fur inernationale architecktur-dokumentation GmbH & Co.

A catalog of the current fabrication methods and their strengths and limits.

Kieran, Stephen and Timberlake, James “Refabricating Architecture” How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction.    New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

A short manifesto calling designers and architects to rethink current design-manufacturing mentalities and assumptions.

Spuybroek, Lars. (2011). Textile Tectonics. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers

A discussion of the novel biologically-inspired tectonic opportunities afforded by modern computational technologies and digital fabrication.



[1] Carl, Peter, Architecture in Time.

[2] Carl, Peter. Ornament and Time: A Prolegomena.  AA Files 22. p. 60

[3] Ibid. Carl. p. 52

[4] Loos, Adolf. Ornament and Crime pg. 23

[5] See Paolanyi, Michael. “Tacit Knowing” in The Tacit Dimension.

[6] Arendt p. 140-141

[7] Arendt. p. 146-147

[8] McGee, Wes. “Matter & Making” in FABRICATE. p. 74

[9] Radiolario Pavilion in FABRICATE. p.232-235 (also see


~ by jluebker on March 27, 2013.

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