Ornament and Crime

The West End of Frankfurt is opulent and partly gated. The atmosphere is sedate and filled with the exalted breath of those who know they have money power. There is a great sense of private property and I feel conspicuous taking photographs. Do they imagine I am a master criminal planning an elaborate heist? It is a dangerous combination, a camera, small notebook and sharpened pencil. No, it is not crime that fascinates but the mass psychology and anthropological differences of the various classes in society.

The vast majority of sidewalk sociologists, Marxist theoreticians, urban explorers, street artists, socialist activists, psycho-geographers never enter these houses nor see or hear anything of the domestic and inner lives of the people who live within. Except of course socialists who come from these backgrounds. And rather than adopt mockney accents and cor-blimey trousers they should tell the rest of us what it’s like. It is important evidence in the fact-sheets which are needed in understanding class differences. What do these people really believe? What are their attitudes to immigration, wealth, poverty, housing, racism? What do they desire and fear? Without actually talking to them it may be difficult to know. The mass media is a poor guide and where is the body of research (and I don’t mean that ‘think tank’ stuff which often tells us nothing at all) which really gets inside the deep undercurrents of their consciousness?

The area experienced substantial bomb damage during the Second World War and there was a great deal of pressure, and sharp debate, as to how the rebuilding should be carried out. What has emerged is actually quite an interesting mix of Grunderziet and Modernism with a scattering of Art Nouveau. Unfortunately, as with many urban areas, much is over-shadowed with post-modernism. The Messeturm dominates like an over weight bouncer outside a sleazy night club. It is an excellent metaphor for post-modernism, not only in architecture, but also in ideas and presentation. It lacks style, has little coherence, shouts to make a point and is uninvited. It beams post-modernism into the streets like the death-ray from an alien spaceship. There is no escape.

There is a great deal of ornament, lion’s heads, corbels, keystones, acanthus leaves, balustrades, Corinthian pillars and the like. I make a note to bring a geological hammer next time to knock bits off for subsequent materials analysis. I assume it’s all made of concrete in which case it would be worth researching the development of the industries producing this in the nineteenth century. Those factories would be under constant competitive pressure to sell and (again, an assumption) would have marketing departments and sales reps to make sure their lion’s heads were selling better than the competitors cherub’s.

Adolf Loos argues in Ornament and Crime, ‘As there is no longer any organic connection between ornament and our culture, ornament is no longer an expression of our culture. The ornament being created now bears no relationship to us, nor to any human being, or to the system governing the world today’. I think something can be added. Those responsible for producing, marketing and selling ornament (and creating fashion and influencing taste) had to find a balance. Ornament which quickly went out of fashion would disappoint the house owners. Their house would become dated, no longer of the time, their values could be read as old-fashioned and archiac. Ornament had to be classical, it had to be of antiquity, it had to be monumental. This gave it a connection and continuity with the past which would help it survive into the future.

It was difficult for the burgher class living in these villas to directly associate with Modernism (except in production and perhaps the fine arts) because there were hints and tropes of democracy, equality and socialism within it. But they could associate with classicism and antiquity, thus presenting permanence and configuring a reflected glory with previous epoch which had acquired the label of ‘civilization’.

But there is something else in Loos which deserves attention. He discusses the waste of the workers’ time and materials in creating it all. His argument against this type of ornamentation is not only of aesthetics but also of political economy and something that can be described as the human condition. He follows an argument laid out by Marx in the initial chapters of Capital in which Marx discusses the relationship between the number of hours of labour needed for the production of an object, the value of the object and the wages of the worker. Loos adds something else. Why should workers toil away to do this? It is an excellent question which is too rarely asked.

One of the few people to look more generally at waste in the economy was Michael Kidron in his book Capitalism and Theory and that was published in 1974. There is increasingly an understanding of the waste of materials during capitalist production and consumption, but there is also an enormous waste of peoples time.

It should not be forgotten how much of a worker’s life-time is wasted producing objects simply to make profits for others and for the amusement of the rich. Life-time is our most precious resource and yet subjugated to the interests of commodities (inanimate objects) and capital accumulation (which is in the interests of only a handful of people).

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