The artist’s ‘A House for Essex’ demonstrates how ornament can be assimilated into design
There has been a schism at the heart of modern architecture for a century and a half. That schism centres around perhaps the biggest and most skirted-around issues in the theory and practice of the profession — ornament and morality. Wandering around the gloriously absurd secular chapel to the memory of a fictional Essex woman “Julie May Cope”, I wondered whether we are finally beginning to come to terms with that split which has riven the history of modern architecture or whether this curious little building — a collaboration between artist Grayson Perry and architect Charles Holland — actually just confirms the depth of the divide.
The cultural context is complex, but well worth clarifying because it infects the work of every architect and every artist working today. In the mid-19th century John Ruskin declared that architecture had a moral duty to be beautiful but that, without moral purpose, all art was doomed to fail. The architecture of the Victorian era, he believed, was shallow, commercial and ugly, an ugliness rooted in the values of the society that made it. This condemnation of Victorian art and architecture needs to be seen against a tradition in which ornamentation was expensive. It involved hours of craft and skilled labour — the more elaborate a building, a bag or a box was, the more expensive it would be, and the more status it would bring its bearer. […]