The return of the Figural

Marcos Cruz, Marjan Colletti (marcosandmarjan) (2010)

Published in: Beyond (Trends and Fads),
#3 2010, Sun Architecture, Amsterdam Holland


This is an argument about the return of the figural.
In a few brushes, we argue that this return is part of a historic progression in which past figural ornaments are being reassessed in a current architectural debate about ornamentation in the digital realm. Different from décor, ornamentation is here understood as a far more architectural ingrained phenomenon that implies a structural, tectonic and aesthetic depth.
From a petrified to a painted dimension, we seek to establish a clear difference between the abstract, the figurative and the figural in digital architecture. 

Figural Ornaments
By Marcos Cruz

The human body identified as an extension of architecture can be understood as part of a long history of figural ornamentation in architecture.
From Greek and Roman times, throughout the Medieval period a plethora of petrified ‘bodies’ as well as animals and vegetation motifs occupy walls and façades of buildings as information screens to describe religious narratives. Buildings at that time do not just speak through the language of architecture itself, but also communicate historic, functional, and moral aspects through the richness of imagery inlaid in them.[1]
A taste for grotesque figures develops especially with the setting of gargoyles in Gothic cathedrals.

The passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, however, brings with it the transition from figural ornaments as communication tools to décor.
It is at this stage in history that the image of the human body acquires major importance, namely through a repertoire of figures that conquer the wall outside its former religious context. As Alina Payne describes in her article ‘Reclining Bodies’ (2002), this is demonstrated through a variety of ‘parapet figures, reclining nudes on window pediments, caryatids or modified caryatids, figures on balustrades standing sentinel at entrances, not to mention varied figural bas-reliefs embedded in walls’.[2]

One witnesses a growing ‘sculpturalisation’ of architecture in which figures become more and more free-standing and employed to enhance the formal and tectonic expression of buildings. Rhythmic and vertical compositions as well as structural values in columns, beams and arches are reinforced through the metaphoric representation of bones and muscles of bodies.
Walls become understood as more than walls; they become flesh as Payne mentions in the case of Alberti: a combination of both human and architectural flesh.[3]

With the logic of the contrapposto, for example, architects start enhancing the expressive power of a building to that of a carefully choreographed posture of twisting and dancing bodies. For Payne, the figural ornament thus augments the combination between structural and corporeal references, allowing ‘texture, light, shade, and movement to enhance the tactility of the architectural elements of the façade’; an increasingly integrated wall corporeality takes place.

Figures inhabit walls and façades in which ‘the architectural details belong to sculpture in the same way that the geometry of the bodies placed along pyramids and diagonals suggests that they belong to architecture’.
In other words, the Renaissance accomplishes a significant transformation, in which figural ornaments change from a ‘sculptural motif into an architectural one’.
Figures cease being exceptional signature objects.
Figures become one of many that anonymously ‘inhabit’ the architecture.[4]

In the Baroque period many more figures are introduced into walls achieving an unprecedented excess of sensuous attraction.
An exponent of such phenomenon can be seen in the eighteenth century in Late Iberian Baroque and the majestic effects achieved with the implementation of gilt carvings (Talha Dourada).

The church of S. Francis in Porto (18th century), for example, stands out as a case of high exuberance and splendour. Various architects and decorators progressively enrich the church in this period with outstanding gilding techniques, forming a rather eclectic ensemble of motifs and spaces, which in turn creates an extraordinary opulent universe of niches, ornamental patterns, rhythms, and an exceptional group of figures.
Differently from the more tectonically rooted version of Italian Baroque, such work is rather decorative, nonetheless achieving an extraordinary three-dimensional depth and fantasy in its topological surface. Hence, although lacking any structural function, the Talha Dourada is fascinating for the haptic intensity and embodied dimension that the interior cladding of gold leaf creates within otherwise rather austere Romanic and Gothic stone settings.

In this brief history it becomes manifest that the phenomenon of figural ornamentation is the reflection of a conspicuous human aspiration to ‘inhabit’ walls both physically and metaphorically. The merger of the human flesh within the architectural flesh is celebrated and accomplished in an unparalleled theatrical manner.
As never before, exuberant and opulently ornamented scenarios exploit a sensory engagement of the body in architecture.[5]

But from the eighteenth and nineteenth century onwards the exposure of bodies is to be gradually erased from architecture. As the German historian Jan Klaus Philipp explains, the loss of the long-lasting relationship between buildings and figural ornaments comes to an end as the result of architecture’s drive for structural and material truth and the understanding of the figural as being pure decoration.
More than relying on figural complexity, architects become obsessed with the veracity of contours, tectonics, as well as textures in buildings, which are understood as truly architectural values that in turn help differentiate architecture from other disciplines in art and science.
The modern era of abstraction takes its pace.

Digital Figural Ornamentation
By Marjan Colletti

Within a contemporary architectural debate, one could argue that it is the recent proliferation of digital techniques that allows going beyond Modern abstraction and the above-mentioned separation of tectonics and ornamentation in architecture.
Observe, for example, how small variations in software protocols, tooling systems and fabrication mechanics can result in the more or less exuberant articulation of ornate textures, surfaces and volumes.

Within digital design, there is a twofold conceptual synthesis to be seen between digital ornamentation and tectonics.
The first propels towards 'pure form' through abstraction, the latter towards the 'purely figural' through sensation. Both these vectors are delineated in Gilles Deleuze's book Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation[6] and are described as painting's chance to escape from the figurative in art.

In the context of digital figural ornamentation, the term figurative may stand for the first instance of digitality: ‘cyber’ representation, depiction, narration, illustration of what is not corporeal, body-related, in other words, figural.

Within architecture’s digital domain it can be argued that it is possible to trace a similar distancing from the contemporary digital design equivalent of the figurative in painting, the hyper-real rendering[7] – that simulation that replaces the real with a fictitious and artistic self-representation of its own – digital – properties and characteristics.[8]
Only by avoiding hyper-fake hyper-realism digital design can manage to articulate something purely original beyond the figurative rendering.

As mentioned above, the first trajectory targets abstraction.
The abstract, immaterial, and partly indeterminate nature of the visual arts in the early 20th century had deeply inspired the non-figural 2-D graphic domain of Modern architecture.

Similarly, in the 21st century, it is still Modern art with its need for geometric clarity and control (i.e. structural and material/digital ‘truth’) in particular that provides the most likely reference material for most of contemporary digital design, which is now mostly described within 3-D software modelling environments. Here, abstraction equals ornament; flat ornament. 

Abstraction has no body, and neither has architecture.[9] In parametric and scripted generative techniques for example, a similar generative logic and morphological syntax produces myriads of complex, patternised, ornamental topologies with more and more 'mental' attributes – albeit that the intellectual endeavour here usually drifts towards the generic and the dogmatic, and away from the phenomenological and the experiential.

The computer is used to perform an intellectual task that goes beyond simulation, representation and simulation of representation. Such task is a digital, intrinsic cerebral expression of a synthetic, subjected and almost spiritual blurred code of abstraction: the articulation of a mediated system for a possible symbolic structure or strategy for digitality itself. It implies a code that is predominantly non-narrative and non-representational, yet being a mimetic[10] graphic mental system.
The value is that of aesthetics and application, understood as bodiless decoration, as software programming, and as global applicability – as method.
This trajectory appears as elegant.

But there is a second, less traveled path that leads away from decoration towards the re-inclusion of the figural into digital architecture.

By using the computer to perform a sensorial task, digital design is shaped by purely sensual neural experiences, by the exuberant dynamic form, by isolated, deformed and dissipated forces of convoluted, folded and distorted figures/shapes/lines/Gestalten. It builds up an architectural repertoire rooted in a different set of exuberant references and precedents.
Think of the Baroque and its passions, tormented visions and metaphysics; with all its magnificent figural, sensual, exuberant examples – Pietro da Cortona's The Triumph of Divine Providence (1633–9) or Gianlorenzo Bernini's The Cathedra Petri (1647–53)that blur the dimensions of space (3-D) and time (4-D).[11]

In recent times, similar features transpire in what may be called the contemporary ‘cyber-streamlining’ fever, sustained by an ever increasing amount of slick, fleshy, lofted furniture and building proposals – a very similar trend to that of the ‘streamlining fever’ of 1930s America.[12]
The justification for the dynamic ornament is again very similar and to do with the manufacturing protocols: such machines and materials had then, and still have now, constraints that usually demand sharp and thin edges to be smoothed down.
Ornamentation at this point is not intellectual; it is to do with the visual consumption of the unequivocal athleticism and ergonomics of shapes and forms.

In this instance, the values of ornament are not aesthetic and application, but esthesis and performance.

Performance is understood as sensorial task or, better, as graphic meta-task (what is to be performed is the performing of a task), and as staging (the reality of the task is not identical to the real-life task).

Without an intellectual structure (or strategy), the ultimate task is for the body/figure to become the ornament, or for the ornament to become the body. Eventually, for the ornament (and hence the body) to become architecture.

Here, ornament and architecture are not flat but convoluted.
This is exuberant.

Albeit arguing in favour of ornamentation, one cannot disregard the fact the danger of misinterpretation and superficiality, i.e. decorative abstract wallpapering, and crude formal contortions.

As ever, even though inherent to the thinking and tooling of digital architecture, ornament cannot be the only feature of architecture. After all, inhabitation is not an abstract thought, it is mere fiction, and space is not only the modeling of forces, of friction.

But then again, digital figural ornamentation should not belong to the everyday, as much as Bacon or the Baroque do not consider themselves, in Waldemar Januszczak's words, 'perfectly formed, exquisite, delicate, so civilized, precious', but rather as the imperfect pearl that gives the name to style: 'blobby, exuberant, misshapen, difficult to handle, and exciting in a deformed kind of way’.[13] 

Conclusion: Aesthetics of the figural
Both past and contemporary figural ornamentation implies a bodily dimension of architecture that, against the tendency for abstraction in the Modern era, is essentially impure. It accepts blurry and unclear conditions, along with deformed and grotesque (and ugly) phenomena, while playing out the sensuous (even sexual) as perfectly valid aesthetic criteria.

However, a lot of the contemporary architecture is still lead by a formal drive for purity in the digital realm that, in the way it is being handled, risks bringing about a new Digital Modernism of ‘clean’ aesthetics that are corpologically empty.[i]

Perhaps we should start re-evaluating a less outspoken history of the figural within the Modern period that goes from Kurt Schwitters down to Carlo Molino, Bruce Goff, Pancho Guedes, Gaetano Pesce, Haus Rucker and Archigram, in which the bodily and sensuous (in the context of a technological belief that was neither mechanical nor abstract but rather experiential) were inherently necessarily conditions. They precede the return of the figural.

Wigley: ‘The rejection of decoration in favour of the cultivated eye is explicitly understood as a form of architectural purification.’[ii] Any ornamental voluptuousness or sensual excess is removed in favour of an architectural experience whereby ‘pleasure [is] purified of pleasure’, as Pierre Bourdieu emphasizes.[iii] 

[1]         Translated by the author from Jan Klaus Philipp, in Architektur Skulptur. Die Geschichte einer Fruchtbaren Beziehung, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart / München, 2002, p. 63.
[2]         Payne, Alina, ‘Reclining Bodies: Figural Ornament in Renaissance Architecture’, in George Dodds, and Robert Tavernor (ed.), Body and Building. Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2002, p. 96.
[3]         Ibid., pp. 112-113.
[4]         Ibid., pp. 108-110.
[5]         I am here reinterpreting Natália Marinho Ferreira-Alves’ descriptions of Northern Portuguese Baroque churches. She argues that ‘for the complete understanding of the [Baroque scared space] one has to consider the important role of music played on organs (the majority of organs having great boxes of guilt carvings); the monotonous tune of litanies; the syncopic rhythms of Latin, a language used by priests during the celebrations that just few could understand, and which therefore filled it with mystery; the opulence of liturgical utensils, and the unimpaired vision of hangings with rich embroideries; the inebriating odour of incense emerging from the thuribles, which was mixed with the acrid smell of burned candles, and whose flickering light contributed to intensify the mystic ambience of spaces. “As a fascinating expression of the Baroque, interior spaces of churches covered with gold aimed for a sensory stimulation.”’ Translated from Natália Marinho Ferreira-Alves, A Escola De Talha Portuense e a sua Influência no Norte de Portugal, Edições INAPA, Lisboa, 2001, p. 17.
[6]         Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, Continuum, London 2003 (first published in France, 1981), p. 2 et al.
[7]         The hyper-real rendering is here understood as the commercial illustration and depiction of architecture that in all its sophistication and accuracy is not particularly intended to convey any theoretical, strategic or spatial properties. It is clear that such hyper-real simulations are per se 'hyper-fake'.
[8]         In fact, they are neither part of Realism as reality is not altered by the absence of reality effects, nor of Surrealism, which makes a clear distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. Instead, 'hyper-fake' renditions embed the unreal in its very own Baudrillardian ‘real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself’. Architecture becomes a figuration of a hyper-fake simulacrum. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage Publications, London, 1993 (First published in France, 1976).
[9]         As known, Islamic architecture omits bodies and figuration, and instead constructs a taxonomy of patterns and ornaments that express a basic tenet of the religion: not to be misled into an imaginary and idolatrous world. Ornamentation here is not mere decoration, it has an intellectual, mental, metaphysical bias. That the Middle East has experienced an urbanistic/architectural/financial boom has also well served such developments.
[10]       ‘Mimetic’ here is derived from ‘mimesis’ (world making) and not from ‘mimicry’ (simulation). This differentiation is crucial, as the latter pretends that CAD performs best when simulating something – usually reality, structure, etc. Digital mimesis, on the other hand, is understood as world making, imagination and interpretation.
[11]      One can also think of Jain and Hindu Indian temples, or those of the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs. All of these architectures manifest a truly exuberant figural architectural ornamentation. Different to Islam, religion here promotes the creation and representation of a hyper-world of fetish and of simulacra, of eccentric avatars and sexual idols.
[12]       Once again there is no need for dynamic-looking, animate formed projects. However, this occurrence has a justification: smooth (Deleuzian) spaces, NURBS geometries and parametric models are described by complex, distinct entities that can be easily manufactured – milled, printed, thermoformed or cut – by specialist CAD/CAM machines. László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, Paul Theobald and Company, Chicago Illinois, 1947, pp. 53–54.
[13]        Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Baroque! From St Peter's to St Paul's’, BBC documentary, Episode 1, first broadcast on BBC4 11.03.2009.

[i] A closer look at recent trends that are to a large extent driven by digital/topological preoccupations shows that what was originally an avant-guard of language and thought is becoming now a mainstream in contemporary architecture with a conspicuous Modernist touch. Apart from the fact that this is lead by a hand full of seminal international figures, which spread their thoughts through a waste number of sophisticated publications, exhibitions and buildings, they are supported by a clear networked of leading educational institutions which help disseminating what is at the end consumed almost everywhere.
[ii] Ibid., p. 3
[iii] Bourdieu, Distinction, 2000, p. 491