The Cosemetician \\ Jonathan Henry

In Jeff Kipnis’s article “The Cunning of Cosmetics”, he differentiates the practice of ornamentation and the act of cosmetics as two modes of surface articulation.  After reviewing the article entitled “Herzog et DeMeuron: Minimalismus und Ornament”, by Nikolaus Kuhnert, Kipnis emphasizes the elements with which minimalism and ornament are both very different ideas yet they come together in the work of HdM and manifest a new cosmetic way of surface articulation.

So this combination begs the question of how! How can you be both minimal and ornamental at the same time?  A shining example in HdM’s work is that of the Signal Box.  On first sight the Signal Box is a cube, a minimalist mass that defines the word minimalism.  Special care was taken by HdM in ignoring the possibilities for the site to influence the project.  Most contemporary architects that utilize context as a generative process of form would have jumped on the chance to explore

“the fact that the signal station belongs to remote networks and inter-urban infrastructures and, therefore, that its architecture should be conceived more in terms of flows and intensities…” (J.Kipnis)

Signal Box - Herzog & De Meuron

Signal Box - Herzog & De Meuron

Instead of using vector primitive masses of formless geometry, due to the lacking demands of human inhabitation and the relatively stark conditions of the surrounding site, HdM pushes the rectilinear figure you see today, into the site.  But what differentiates this monolithic cube from pure minimalism is the surface treatment.  This articulated surface of copper ribbons functions as ornamental architecture, but Kipnis would suggest that is also undermines the very definition of ornamentation.

Kipnis sets forth a definition, or affect of ornamentation by stating, “Ornaments attach as discreet entities to the body, like jewelry, reinforcing the structure and integrity of the body as such.”   In this manner ornamentations responsibility is to the structure and integrity of the body, of which is constituted by the architecture.  If we reflect back on the classical notions of ornamentation as can be read in Styles of Ornamentation, by Alexander Speltz, we see the limit of the definition of ornamentation.

“The art of ornamentation therefore, stands in intimate relationship with material, purpose, form, and style.” (A. Speltz)

“Lightly understood, the conformation of an ornament should be in keeping with the form and structure of the object which it adorns should be in complete subordination to it, and should never stifle or conceal it.” (A. Speltz)

From this definition we are left to wonder, and rightfully so, how does ornament work on a minimal form? When the form, style, and structure of the ornamented is void of the nuances that breed ornament, where does this ornament come from? Or better yet, can Hdm treatment of the Signal Box surface be considered ornament? The easy answer is of course, NO. This is why Kipnis understands that ornament is not the right term for the conditions that HdM is exploring.  He makes his point through the use of analogy.

“Cosmetics are erotic camouflage; they relate always and only to the skin, to particular regions of skin. Deeply, intricately material, cosmetics nevertheless exceed materiality to become modern alchemicals as the trans-substantiate skin into image, desirous or disgusting.” (J.Kipnis)

Cosmetics are the realm of the creator and are framed on the skin.  Although it is necessary to have the body as host, its intentionality is to work on the exterior surface.  Such is the case of HdM Signal Box.  The surrounding copper case is an artificial surface.  The true surface of the space inside the box is held within, just slightly hiding, out of sight behind the cosmetic facade.  HdM creates this canvas in order to give place for their acrobatics to occur.

HdM utilizes their love for the minimalist when creating the form for their cosmetics.  This is most appropriately done through the use of the denuded form of the cube.  The featureless faces of the minimalist shape helps to emphasize the subtle articulation that occurs.  Kipnis explains this by returning to the roots of cosmology.  The cosmetician wants the “gaunt featureless visage”, a kind of minimal body/face from which to work, in order to demonstrate the true power of their work.  So is the approach of HdM.  This moves the reading of the building from that of the form to that of pure surface engendered affect.

The title of the article that initiated the retrospection of Kipnis, “Minimalismus und Ornament”, sets the stage for another layer of discourse in the field of surface architecture.  While ornament can only enhance the form, cosmetic treatment will negate it.  While ornamentation becomes subjugated to the body, cosmetics in some sense, becomes the body.  Cosmetics redefine the relationship of the surface to the figure and remove the surface from being the figuration of the body.  The surface becomes the affective manifestation of the new figure.  But let’s take for example a form that is not articulated.

Say we take from the headlines one of the ever so popular vector primitive forms that is being created now.  Featureless and gaunt, the new white box becomes the vector primitive shapes.  When attempting to articulate the surfaces, adding affect to the affectionless gestures does this become ornament, cosmetics, or something new all together?

In an article in TIME entitled Cosmetic Architecture, circa 1963, at the beginnings of the minimalist movement there were cries for differentiated forms.  The postwar period brought with it the standardization of the high-rise into towers of curtain walled glass.  This is the manner which has been circumvented in contemporary designs.  Although we are starting to vary the forms of our urban cityscapes the realm of cosmetics should not be relegated to the minimalist form. Paul Rudolph, once dean of the Yale school of Architecture, emphatically decrees,

“It’s not a question of beauty. It’s a matter of significant form.  There is something in human beings which demands that we sense the support and the supported–even though it may be sheathed with other materials, and decorated.  Look at the difference between these bland cosmetic boxes and a Gothic cathedral, where every last rib and column is structural.” (P. Rudolph)

This should not be misinterpreted as a need for structuralism.  Rather his remarks, although dated should emphasize forms unique ability to derive difference and give potential to the figure.  When both the form and the ornament/cosmetics work in harmony, one not subjugated to the other, the seamless transition from form to surface articulation will allow a scalar shift linked to the users proximity to the building.  This will achieve an active form and active surface and an active audience.


~ by jonathanhenry on February 28, 2010.

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