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This article was originally published on CommonEdge as "African Architecture: Ornament, Crime & Prejudice." I have always been fascinated by architectural theory. Over the years I’ve read a wide range of works, but none of them intrigued, perplexed and unsettled me as much as “Ornament and Crime,”Adolf Loos’ controversial polemic written a handful of years before the outbreak of World War I.  I first came across Loos’ essay as a young African design student living in Europe. The essay unnerved me for two reasons: I was studying to become a “modern” designer, reading the appropriate canon of literature, but I’d come from a culture deeply rooted in ornamentation, so the piece felt like a direct affront on a key aspect of my cultural identity. It was a difficult reality to process, but placing the essay in its historical context offered a better perspective. At that time, Loos had written the essay as essentially an attack on historicism  (one largely targeted against his old comrades at the Vienna Secession, a movement he briefly belonged to). The piece was a sort of internet rant, a hundred years before the internet—he was taking a sledgehammer to the status quo. Still, from my perspective, the case Loos made and the analogies cited (especially one where he likened the use of ornamentation in any form to the Papua New Guinean tradition of painting their bodies as a “supposed” mark of beauty), bordered on the offensive. Ornamentation, for the modern man, he said, was an aberration. “Ornament is not merely produced by criminals,” he further asserted, “it commits a crime itself…” View more View full description
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