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Case for New Ornamentalism: A Synthesis between History and Technology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 1702 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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New York City has become a museum of architecture marvels, with every street and avenue presenting itself as a walking gallery through the many masterpieces. On the one side, Hudson Yards with its arsenal of eccentric buildings – Stairs that lead to nowhere reminiscent of one of M.C. Escher’s mind-bending works to the other end with Riverside Center housing an amalgamation of “Jetsons”-age sculptural superstructures mirroring the waterfront. But all of this extravagance holds nothing on the beauty of walking between old brownstones or through a Victorian street.

However, right in the midst of a landmark 19th-century district in New York City is a unique example of a structure that dares to embrace it’s neighbourhood’s historic essence and bucks the trend towards sculptural buildings.

Situated at the northwest corner of Broadway and Spring Street in Manhattan, one the most trafficked intersections in the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District, 529 Broadway or more popularly known as Nike SoHo stakes its claim as a worthy landmark in a neighbourhood tourists and locals heavily frequent for both its architectural charm and its massive retail attractions.

Completed in 2016 by BKSK architects, 529 Broadway is six stories tall structure, with a gross square footage of approximately 52,000.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Nike Soho building (besides the Swoosh) is the exposed structural steel, painted with lustrous paint which runs through the interiors of the building as well. With striking copper-esque terracotta and a glass facade, the structure has become a landmark on the corner of Spring Street in Soho.

Unlike so many “buildings as ornaments” which are popping up all over the city, the Nike buildings reside in the middle of a landmark 19th-century district and seek to fit in its immediate environment and embrace the styles that inspired it.

The most riveting element of this building is the terracotta rain screen and its glass curtain wall facade system which imparts the structure a sense of an open masonry building. With bands of terra cotta that go from sitting flat on the facade above the fenestrated voids to becoming a protruding cornice, the terracotta panels revive the old, pre-Modernist joy that we find in the ornate, This is BKSK’s nod to a more decorated past whilst belonging to the present.

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A study on evolution, transformation and transition – 529 Broadway is the perfect example of reviving an older structure into a modern one without losing the essence of what it used to be whilst giving it a sense of belonging to the present. The new building inhabits the site of the long-demolished Prescott House, an exuberantly decorative hotel built in 1852 when brick masonry was the core materiality. The Prescott House was then converted into an office space in the 60s and remained that way until BKSK’s intervention.

Their early intent of demolishing the existing office building and constructing a new one garnered significant opposition, especially from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. That is until they revealed what was to replace it.

Reminiscent of the original 19th-century Prescott House that preceded it, the new structure’s facade pays homage to the past within the present in one parametric swoosh. The heavy terracotta facade progressively evolves and morphs, becoming less dense along the length of the building, transitioning almost completely into floor-to-ceiling glazed glass held by thin mullion details. BKSK strayed away from using standard computer-assisted design programs that form and deform buildings. The firm took great strides and borrowed software from filmmaking and video-gaming industries to assure the intricacy of the building’s terra-cotta adornments.

In a time in which buildings aspire to be either classically ornate or defiantly modern, 529 Broadway sits somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, it recognises the distinct character that makes the streets of SoHo unique by maintaining a traditional cast-iron aesthetic. On the other, it embraces architectural clarity The result is a new architectural moment, a New Ornamentalism – opening the door for a synthesis between history and technology.

Modern day technologies do a marvellous job in turning whole buildings into an ornament, whereas the latest technologies of the 19th century let industrially mass-produced ornamentation to branch out into everything that surrounded one. Embracing pre-Modernist Ornamentalism, The Nike Soho building is a perfect fusion of the past and the present.

The building sits inside the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, it won approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission because it sits inside the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. One commissioner called it “as exciting a building as I’ve seen [in my time] on the committee”.

Alina Payne is an architectural historian at Harvard known for her deep research into ornamentalism. A New Ornamentalism, Professor Payne explained, may, in fact, be limited by the same software that has allowed it to flourish. The standard tools of digital design seem better suited to warping an entire building or texturizing a whole facade than to adding a flood of unique, tantalizing decorations.

Architects had previously tried to revive ornamentalism once before, in the 1980s, with postmodernism. But that movement’s decorative gestures – a modern skyscraper topped with a neo-Classical pediment; a concrete library shaped like the Roman Coliseum were clearly ironic, a wink and a nod to past pleasures of ornamentalism rather than with a true commitment to updating those attractions for modern existence.

As the Victorian era was gradually fading to black, Pioneering Modernist Adolf Loos published an influential essay “Ornament and Crime,” contending that a love for ornamentation and decorations that architects had been deploying ever since the Grecian era was actually a sign of a “weak, disordered and primitive mind.”

Professor Payne argues that even with all this time, those ideas still have their sway, at least subconsciously, among many of today’s most influential architects. She states that most 21st-century studios may still be affected by this Victorian ideologies. There was something about the succeeding Postmodern architecture movement which presented itself as patronizing and condescending, Professor Payne imagines that nature of the movement kept Ornamentalism from flourishing.

Professor Payne also has a specific impression that Modernism may have truly come of age only recently, with new technologies and materialities that have allowed it to realize its full potential. Today’s computers allow visualization of modern form that a Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe or even an Antoni Gaudi or Oscar Niemeyer could never have achieved.

Preservation-friendly buildings seem to be all the buzz, especially in a architecturally historic city of New York. With Snohetta redesigning the aforementioned neo-Classical skyscraper, the AT&T building, preserving its historic entity while trying to bring it to the modern age with the intricate additions of glass. This might not be a direct translation of embracing the fusion of the past within the present, but it’s a step in the right direction unlike Norman Foster’s redesign proposal for the New York Public Library which was scrapped due to a complete overhaul of the library into a modern circulating library with no context with its historic past.

Although 529 Broadway is a joy to look at, its ornamentalism runs more than skin deep. In its meticulous, thoughtful and intricate detail, the structure speaks to passing New Yorkers at a larger scale. It conveys a sense of generosity, the facade’s details inviting a closer approach and a dialogue of interpretation and understanding.

In a city ever expanding, with a necessity for more space by the second, 529 Broadway should be held as a benchmark for a glimpse of what New Ornamentalism has to offer. There is an absolute need to embrace the past, within the present. We need to preserve the ornamentalism, the style, the essence of structures – and not the rapid current trend of an influx of buildings as ornaments.

529 Broadway isn’t just a renovation, restoration or preservation, but it is a revival of a pre-Modernist joy in the ornate which we crave to appreciate. With the rise of New Ornamentalism – embracing the past within the modern context, structures can once again shine while reflecting the beauty of the past. Although ornamentalism came to existence as a reaction to modernism, it makes no sense in having to choose one or the other.


●       van Raaij, Michiel, “Building as Ornament: Iconography in contemporary architecture,” NAi Booksellers, 2014.

●       Jensen, Robert, “Ornamentalism: The New Decorativeness In Architecture & Design,” Clarkson Potter, 1982.

●       BKSK, 529 Broadway Press Release, 2016.

●       Gopnik, Blake, “Reviving the Joy of Decoration at Nike’s New SoHo Building,” The New York Times, 2017.

●       Pearman, Hugh, “Writing on an around Architecture,” 2018.


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