Communicating Content

by Oliver Domeisen

The view from my drawing room window would be dominated by the typical Bloomsbury potpourri of Georgian and Victorian brickwork interspersed with the occasional sycamore tree were it not for the domineering presence of a forbidding tower that ruptures the gentle canvas with the blunt force of a monolithic truncheon. Senate House, at 210 feet high, is London’s ‘second sky scraper’ (after 55 Broadway, built by the same architect, Charles Holden). Completed in 1937, situated at the southern end of the University of London campus, it currently houses the city’s second largest library and parts of the institution’s administration. Despite its sheer size and dominance over its surroundings, the building remains utterly mute. Its envelope of pale grey Portland stone is completely devoid of ornament and reveals nothing about the container’s content or location. With its ziggurat-like, successively receding blocks and upwardly diminishing window sizes it evokes a monumentality that we would indeed more readily associate with Moscow, Berlin or New York. The absence of any decoration or statuary prevents us from speculating on the building’s intended purpose – yet speaks volumes about its intended nature.

During WWII the building was occupied by the Ministry of Information, the British propaganda machine that laid the foundations for today’s spin-doctors. Behind the tower’s featureless facades, political ‘content’ was managed to reemerge as an impenetrable web of national identification. One occupant and ministerial employee, Eric Arthur Blair (a.k.a. George Orwell), later immortalized the building by making it the template for the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Here history would be continuously rewritten and edited to suit Big Brother’s autocratic purpose. The eponymous film version (1984) used Senate House as the setting for the Ministry of Love, where, in room 101, the protagonist’s spirit would finally be broken when facing his ultimate fear of being consumed by rats. The building has allured a remarkable, yet suspicious, array of real as well as fictional characters. In the late 1930s Oswald Moseley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, intended to house his Parliament here after having overthrown the government. Hitler is said to have selected Senate House as his preferred party headquarters in England after a successful invasion. Most recently Batman Begins (2005) used the interior as Gotham City’s courthouse. The appeal that emanates from the building like a toxic perfume can only be explained through the mix of aesthetic absence and monumental presence. Its deafening silence and illusory magnitude invite fantastic projections of occupation and appropriation. Completed almost 30 years after Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime, Senate House casts a dark shadow over his cities of ‘white walls’ and pre-empted the public suspicion that would haunt Modernism in Britain for decades to come.

Across the road from Senate House stands another monolith hewn from Portland stone. Preceding the tower of dark imagination by a decade, this container hides true danger. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) was founded at the height of the British empire (1899) to overcome the losses suffered in the ‘White Man’s Grave’ of the tropical colonies. Its current home, designed by architects Morley Horder and Verner Rees, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to the tune of two million dollars, was finished in 1929 and soon became the epicenter of research on protozoal and arboviral diseases.

At first glance the building appears almost identical to Senate House, at least stylistically, but closer inspection reveals a subtle layer of carefully placed ornamentation that identifies the purpose of this structure eloquently. The most dominant ornamental motifs are contained within a frieze surrounding the building. Here we find the names of 23 pioneers of public health and tropical medicine between laurel wreaths. The resulting gravitas is reminiscent of the impervious monumentality of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall (1919), yet fails to engage the passerby beyond a sense of reverence. What really catches the eye is a series of small gilded bronzes that adorn the balustrades of the second story windows. Glistening in the sun and closer to the observer’s eye, they reveal themselves as most peculiar ornaments. Evenly distributed along a datum line, we find a family of mosquitoes, snakes, rats, ticks, mites, fleas and flies. Bloodsucking arachnids and disease-ridden rodents, flattened into semi-relief and brightly gilded, are all scaled to fit within the same square module. Instead of the familiar ornamental abstractions of nature one might expect to find on a building, such as carved stone rosettes or wrought iron scrolls of foliage, we are taken aback by the incongruous scaling and celebratory materiality bestowed upon pests and vermin. But then this is not just any building. It is a veritable Pandora’s box of pandemic disease. Malaria, sleeping sickness, Dengue fever, tickborne encephalitis and tuberculosis are just a few of the virulent strains contained within. This is where research is conducted in the fields of medical entomology and microbiology, parasitology, bacteriology, protozoology and preventive teratology (congenital malformations). The LSHTM is the institution that proved the mosquito transmission of Malaria by letting them feed on two healthy men. Here Orwell’s room 101 does not just exist as a figment of the imagination, but as a necessary reality.

The building thus adorns itself with the harbingers of death, the transmitters of disease. At once it communicates to the observer the intended purpose and the celebrated achievements of the institute. It also declares what it contains and what must remain inaccessible. Finally these figurative representations project a warning of invisible dangers, much like the gargoyles on a gothic cathedral, but also imply the possibility of control through categorization and containment. Set into steel frames, the insects, reptiles and mammals are presented to us as if they are specimens mounted in slides to be viewed under a microscope. A precedent for this could be found on the Romanesque facades of the Natural History Museum (1881), part of South Kensington’s Albertopolis, where the terracotta tiles contain representations of flora and fauna. While the ornamental scheme here predicts the systematic linear arrangement and containment of the figures at LSHTM, it also acts as an explicit critique of Darwin’s theory of natural selection by distributing living species on the west wing and extinct ones on the east wing, therefore disputing any continuity between the two. Once again ornamentation allows the institution to communicate, through its architecture, worldly ideas and ideologies beyond the vocabulary of architectural styles and composition. It also prevents fantastic projections of occupation and appropriation.

The LSHTM was completed in the same year as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. One must acknowledge the irony in the fact that the foremost European institution concerned with hygiene and public health eschewed the pathology that was so carefully constructed around ornament by the Modernist avant-garde in favor of traditional applied ornamentation. Le Corbusier wrote in The Decorative Art of Today (1925): ‘…this taste for decorating everything around one is a false taste, an abominable little perversion’. Instead, he proposes the ‘healthy, clean, decent’ alternative of the Law of Ripolin (white paint), echoing Loos who in Ornament and Crime (1908) declared: ‘…the ornament has not only been produced by criminals; it commits a crime, in the sense that it damages the individual’s health’. Even before Loos another Austrian, Richard Schaukel, in Against Ornament (1908) coined the term ‘the ornament disease’. From a contemporary perspective, these arguments do not reveal the septic underbelly of ornament, but the underlying pathological obsession with an image of cleanliness.

Today our cities do not shine like white walls, but flicker like television sets. Our buildings are often not ‘comely in the nude’ (Louis Sullivan), but badly dressed. Demands of contemporary capitalist cultures of representation and social trends towards individual expression are colliding with the homogenizing modernist idiom in an architecture that is inarticulate and uncomfortable within the world it inhabits. Meanwhile, the seeming resurgence of ornament in recent architectural discourse only obscures a long-standing aversion to the figurative and symbolic, and a continued retreat into abstraction by declaring any cladding that relies on complex geometry to be ornament, thus opening up the definition of the term so widely that it becomes all-inclusive and almost meaningless, not to mention hopelessly irrelevant to contemporary cultures of representation.

For architecture to become meaningful within cultures that favor communication, experience and excess, the discipline must rediscover a more scholastic and relevant conception of ornament: namely ornament as architecture’s intrinsic mode of communication. The language of ornament will emerge only from a thorough knowledge of the history and theory of an element of architecture that is as old as the discipline itself, from its deliberate placement upon the structure as a whole and from the integrity of a chosen motif that communicates a set of visual and conceptual messages, which elevate a structure beyond expressions of its own existence or utility. Neither the seamless surfaces of Maya renderings, nor the parametric tiling or patterning of a building’s envelope will reveal the real functions and transgressive powers of ornament. This is why the language of ornament is understood most clearly through the bold use of figuration defining Herzog & de Meuron’s printed leaves on the Ricola Factory building (Mulhouse 1994) or OMA’s subversive portrait of Mies adorning the McCormick-Tribune Campus Centre (with graphic designers 2x4; Chicago 2003), and it is why it is drowned out by the incoherent mutterings of decoration in so many other contemporary projects that dress up Modernism in the emperor’s new clothes.

























Content Management
Oliver Domeisen