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  Decoration (from Latin decorare, ‘to beautify’), in the field of architectural ideas, concerns the varied embellishment of built structures for aesthetic effect, bringing them beyond the strictly utilitarian and functional. The term is used synonymously with ‘ornament’, although in 20th-century, Western discourse the idea of ‘decoration’ is given special prominence in the field of ‘interior’ decoration, that is, the treatment of interiors with different paints, fabrics and objects.

Although from earliest times a built structure may depend for aesthetic effect on its shape, the ‘modelling’ of its mass or weight of the articulation of related spaces, it is a characteristic of most settled societies that enormous emphasis has been placed on the addition of ornament, such as colour, by the different use of materials, or as with carving, by the application of pattern and design. In many cases such ornamentation might be abstract, such as the geometric forms which we associate with Mayan culture, and achieved by carving and the treatment of the building materials. Abstract ornament, and much of the figurative carving of early cultures, drawn from the animal or vegetable world, was in some way related to mythical or religious beliefs.

Painting and sculpture are throughout history seen as the ‘sister’ arts to architecture, but in the 20th century, due to the modernist doctrine of functionalism (the belief that beauty must necessarily follow from a building or object functioning well), there was a dramatic rejection of those sister arts which traditionally supplied surface decoration to the built form. It is a claim of the postmodernist architects that they attempt to revive this traditional relationship. JM

Further reading J. Barnard, The Decorative Tradition.



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